Agencies combat senior isolation

Senior centers, churches offer much-needed activity, social interaction

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter




Loaves & Fishes lunches for seniors:

• Countree Kitchen restaurant, 39813 N.E. 216th Ave., Amboy. Noon Wednesdays. 360-567-7670.

• Battle Ground Community Center, 912 E. Main St., Battle Ground. Noon Monday through Friday. 360-666-9158.

• Washougal Senior Center, 1681 C. St., Washougal. Noon Monday through Friday. 360-210-5666.

• Firstenburg Community Center, 700 N.E. 136th Ave., Vancouver. Noon Monday through Friday. 360-597-5711.

• La Center Community Center, 1000 E. Fourth St., La Center. Noon Monday through Thursday. 360-567-7670.

• Luepke Senior Center, 1009 E. McLoughlin Blvd., Vancouver. Noon Monday through Friday. 360-695-3847.

• Ridgefield Communtiy Center, 210 N. Main St., Ridgefield. Noon Tuesdays. 360-567-7670.

Other resources:

• Meals-On-Wheels: 866-788-6325.

• Elder Friends: 360-487-7050.

Eighty-four-year-old Marjorie Siwek joined the Washougal Senior Center after her husband died in 2002. She didn’t realize at the time the friends she would make at the center would later serve as her surrogate family.

Macular degeneration had impaired Siwek’s vision. She could no longer drive, so her daughter took her to all the places she wanted to go, including the senior center.

Then, in September, Siwek’s daughter died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative condition.

Siwek’s friends at the senior center swooped in to help. Sixty-eight-year-old Frances Davis, helped Siwek move into her own apartment and took over the tasks Siwek’s daughter had done, including rides to doctors appointments, shopping and other tasks.

“She takes me shopping,” Siwek said. “She mops and vacuums my floors once a week. She does all the things I can’t do. She is just a wonderful friend. I wish I could adopt her as a sister.”

Staying socially connected, as Siwek has done, is one of the best ways seniors can maintain their cognitive ability, their health and their happiness in old age, experts say. Yet more than 35 percent of adults, 45 and older, are chronically lonely, according to a 2010 online survey of 3,012 adults by AARP.

The holidays can exacerbate the effects of social isolation, which can include loneliness, depression and loss of cognitive ability, according to experts.

“We lose a lot of seniors this time of year,” said Wanda Nelson, manager of Loaves and Fishes lunch program at Washougal Senior Center. “There is a lot of death. Part of it is due to the weather. Those who don’t have a lot to hold onto tend to let go during the winter months That’s why we hold lots of activities around the holidays. We ask if anyone needs a place to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

The reasons for social isolation among seniors are nothing new. Americans are transient, moving from state to state and job to job. That means seniors are more likely to live far way from family members.

“Holidays are especially tough for seniors when their children are on all four corners of the world, and they (seniors) are alone,” said Judy Canter, a Vancouver licensed clinical social worker who specializes in gerontology. “They come from a generation when families were together for holidays. That’s very tough on the seniors.”

The solution, according to experts, is to create surrogate families, a network of friends who can fill in for the family members who are deceased, far away or were never there in the first place. One way to do that is to join a senior center or a church-affiliated senior program, Canter said. Senior programs in Clark County offer lunch, classes, games, volunteer activities, arts and crafts, dancing and travel programs.

Siwek said she doesn’t know what she would do without her friends at the senior center.

“I’m grateful for them,” she said. “They’re wonderful.”

Without them, she likely would have spent the holidays alone. This year, she celebrated Thanksgiving with Davis and

her family at Davis’ house in Camas and will join them again on Christmas.

Another friend from the senior center, Alice Olsen, gave Siwek a box of ornaments to decorate her 4-foot Christmas tree in her apartment.

Camas resident David Sanks, 79, has lived alone since his wife died in 2009. Since then, the Washougal Senior Center and church have been his main social outlets. He often complains to the senior center staff that the center isn’t open on the weekends. To fill in the void, he said, he attends two separate church services on Sunday and tries to keep busy on projects around the house.

“I figure as long as I keep busy working around the house, then I’ll be OK,” Sanks said.

Some socially isolated seniors might resist changing their routine and participating at a senior center because of pride or fear, Canter said.

“I tell seniors to push themselves (to go out), especially if you are suffering from depression,” Canter said. “Try it because a lot of times fears are distorted.”


A good way to start exploring is to attend one of Loaves & Fishes’ noon lunches at one of several senior centers in Clark County, including Washougal Senior Center. The meals are open to anyone 60 or older regardless of income. Donations are accepted but not required.

Volunteering is another way to meet friends and ward off loneliness, Canter said. “Our older adults need to feel needed and feel they have a sense of purpose. I see a lot of activities like bingo that are just meant to keep seniors busy but don’t give them a sense of purpose.”

She encourages seniors to do philanthropic activities, such as making quilts for the homeless.


Those ideas might work fine for someone who is able to leave the house, but many seniors are stuck at home due to medical conditions or lack of personal and public transportation.

Isolation is worst for homebound seniors, Canter said.

Pride often deters those seniors from asking for help. Canter encourages them to put their pride aside and ask for a ride to a social event, because socialization is important to their well-being. There might be others attending the event who live in the same area who could pick up the homebound senior.

Another option is the Meals on Wheels program. The program sends volunteers into the community to distribute hot meals to seniors who are debilitated and to make sure no senior feels alone.

“We make it their job to make sure these people have someone to talk to,” Nelson of Loaves and Fishes said. “We’re often the only people they see in their day.”

Keight Schaff who teaches computer classes to seniors at the Firstenburg Community Center in Vancouver said social media are another means to feel socially connected.

“In my class, we talk about Facebook being a social venue and tell them about Skype that allows them to talk to family that is far away,” Schaff said. “It’s an exciting way for them to keep their mind active and interact with others.”

More help may be on the way. CDM Services, which provides a services to seniors, has applied for a variety of grants to start a program called Elder Friends that would match volunteers with seniors. Volunteers are expected to see the senior for at least one hour per week for the duration of at least a year.

Consultant Kiersten Ware, who has started similar programs in Seattle and Richmond, Va., said she’ll know in January whether the program received any grant funding. Once funding is in place, Ware will start training volunteers.

Nelson said everyone in the community has the power to help stop senior isolation.

“Everyone knows one senior,” Nelson said. “All you need to do is put your hand on their arm and say, ‘How are you? Do you need anything?’ It’s just a conversation. Seek out seniors. Seek their advice. They are the ones with the answers so ask. It really is that simple.”