BY JARAH WRIGHT
Ninety-eight-year-old Eva, of Tyler, used to be active in the community.
“When my daughter was small, I gave her a teddy bear. She grew up and moved out and one day I saw her teddy bear in the car seat. I thought that a person who was ill would enjoy that,” Eva said. “So I would collect teddy bears and give them to the sick and the shut-ins. Some people who heard about what I was doing would donate teddy bears for me to give and make sure I had enough to go around.”
Due to health problems and her advanced age, Eva had to stop delivering Teddy Bears to others and isn’t involved in the community as she used to be.
Now she lives alone. Eva’s daughter lives in Mesquite.
Mike Powell, chief executive officer of Meals on Wheels, said that in a mobile society, most people don’t live in the same city as their mom or dad.
Technology is creating a way to bridge that gap.
New technology offers ways for seniors to stay in touch with their families and stay at home longer. In Japan, a robotic pet has been developed that responds to touch and voice commands.
“Imagine if you had something like that in a person’s home and it had a camera,” said Anne Hatfield, a clinical social worker at The University of Texas Health Science Center’s Joseph Z. and Louise H. Ornelas Center for Healthy Aging. “That person could stay in their home for a very long time because of one little robot. The caregivers could turn it on to check on them. It would be cost effective, no question.”
Mrs. Hatfield said some families are using technology to their advantage.
“There is one family in Tyler and their mom lives in Austin. She’ll call her mom and tell her to go over to the computer. They turn on Skype and use it to check on her. They’ll ask if she’s okay and tell her to open her pillbox in front of the camera to make sure she’s taken her medicine. I mean that’s fabulous,” said Mrs. Hatfield.
She said another way to combat loneliness and depression is for families to visit elderly relatives at least once a week.
“I tell family members to go to them. Go physically see them and take them somewhere even if it’s just to get a cup of coffee. Families that do that have much, much healthier patients."
Isolation can also lead to fractured relationships between family members who put loved ones in a nursing home and then rarely visit.
“Not only do they feel isolated but many times they are very angry and they blame their families,” said Billie Huff, a family nurse practitioner with the Center for Healthy Aging. “It depends on what the situation was but we hear a lot of ‘My daughter put me here’ or ‘They sold my house.’ In most cases, that’s not really true. They had to dispose of the property to pay for care or be able to get them on Medicaid, which is the primary payer source for the nursing homes.”
Social interaction plays a big role in senior health. Interaction protects against depression, loneliness, and isolation from the community.
“There is a huge correlation between isolation and health in the elderly,” Mrs. Hatfield said. “One of the things is if you don’t have a caregiver checking you out, then your dementia gets worse and worse. They’ll stay in and get quiet and still. They’ll have sicknesses and physical problems. Then they can’t remember that they hurt and they won’t get help for that.”
Mrs. Hatfield has seen families that think this behavior is normal.
“It’s often that families will say ‘She’s fine. She’s just choosing to sit in her house all day, every single day for 40 days in a row.’ Who would choose to only sit in their house? It’s normal that we need to get out,” Mrs. Hatfield said. “That isolation is bad for anyone at any age. It’s particularly bad for this age group. They need social interaction.”
Senior centers and community organizations are providing ways for seniors to remain active and live in their homes longer.
The Tyler Senior Center provides a place for seniors to interact and have fun through activities. Some activities are strenuous such as line dancing while others are mind-stimulating like bridge club.
“When they come to the senior center, they feel accomplished,” said senior center supervisor Kay Odom. “They’ve been somewhere, visited friends, played bingo, and didn’t have to eat alone.”
One reason Ms. Odom says it’s a great place is because of the camaraderie among the seniors.
“Some seniors dress like they’re out on the town when they come here while others will wear jogging suits. They accept each other and don’t judge each other.”
Seniors have embraced the center as a place to call their own.
“They took ownership (of the senior center),” said Ms. Odom. “They feel like they’ve been honored with it.”
For seniors who are unable to go to places like the senior center, Meals on Wheels is often a valuable resource.
Eva receives a meal each day from the organization and looks forward to the daily visit.
“I sit by the window and look for them,” she said.
Meals on Wheels serves seniors by not only providing food, but checking and making sure they are okay.
“Volunteers play an important role in that (checking on seniors),” said Powell. “Not only do we give them a meal but we have a daily safety check. We’re checking on that individual each day and a lot of times, our volunteer is the only person they see or interact with every day.”
This provides security not only to the senior but also to the senior’s family who might be living in a different city.
“Families rely on us to check and be able to write feedback if we see problems or issues that come up,” Powell said.
Meals on Wheels has also started a book program. The Tyler Public Library provides Meals on Wheels with books to give to seniors on the meal routes.
“The library approached us and they’ve given us all sorts of books from sci-fi to westerns to romance to biographies,” said Powell. “It’s a great help. They look forward to it and it provides them with a source of entertainment.”
Eva says the visit by Meals on Wheels volunteers make her day.
“I know their name and they look forward to come see me. When they come, it feels like a ray of sunshine.”