Seniors draw strength from sharing COVID stories.
Organizations who conduct COVID-19 community outreach might be feeling a little stuck. We have important public health messages to deliver and services to provide, but people feel exhausted by the COVID conversation. Since the onset of the pandemic over two and a half years ago, the public has navigated changes in safety guidelines, shut-downs, re-openings, economic hardship, battling news sources, isolation, and an overarching sense of uncertainty. It’s been a lot to handle, even for the most stable and well-adjusted among us. However, as the public grows weary of the message encouraging vaccines, boosters, and frequent testing, the public health crisis remains. So how do you engage a fatigued audience?
When SOWN had the opportunity this Fall to engage older adults in COVID-19 outreach as part of WHYY N.I.C.E.’s #BOOSTTRUTH campaign, we knew that we needed to adapt our COVID conversation. We decided to call out the trauma at the root of our fatigue. In three separate sessions during October and November, SOWN partnered with the Southwest Senior Center (SWSC), the Northeast Older Adult Center (NEOAC), and the Firehouse Active Adult Center in West Philadelphia to host open discussions with center members to acknowledge the collective trauma that led to our collective burnout.
We wanted to give older adults the space to express themselves and share their emotional experiences coping with life during the pandemic. During the conversations, SOWN offered psychoeducation on trauma and traumatic stress, social isolation, burnout, and decision-making fatigue. We collaborated with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH) Division of COVID-19 Containment’s outreach team for our senior center discussions, offering a trusted messenger to speak to the facts of this public health crisis.
SOWN started each conversation by acknowledging COVID fatigue and recognizing that the underlying trauma has brought us to this period of burn out. SOWN framed trauma as an experience that destroys one’s sense of safety in the world. Senior center members remembered the loss of physical and emotional safety caused by the pandemic. When asked how they felt when the senior centers shut down abruptly in March 2020, many recalled fear and sadness. A NEOAC member felt helpless and frustrated. “What do we do now?” he remembered asking himself.
He described the social interaction that center members rely on for their well-being, adding that some older adults were made especially vulnerable without the centers as a haven for social connections and supports. “What about the people who didn’t have anyone at home? What were they supposed to do?”
Helplessness was felt in Southwest Philadelphia as well. An SWSC member shared, “I was really frustrated. I didn’t think it [the shut-downs] would last that long. I missed going to the center. I constantly walked my dog. I think I tired my dog out.”
Another SWSC attendee expressed shock when she learned of the center closings. “I never thought it would close,” she said. The senior center had long provided breakfast and lunch, so now she found herself abruptly tasked with cooking three meals a day for herself and her husband. “I was afraid to go to the supermarket,” she added.
Members at both Firehouse and Southwest recalled feeling depressed once the senior centers closed in the initial wave of shut-downs. “The center is a place to hang out with other older people,” explained a SWSC attendee. “It was really hard.” Although a few older adults welcomed a break from day-to-day interactions with others, the isolation seemed to take hold of most people.
“It was depressing not be able to go out, and then when you did go out, you had to worry about wearing a mask and being in crowds,” explained a Firehouse member. Several other attendees identified the anxiety brought on by leaving isolation to go out in public, feeling hypervigilant in public places when others were not taking safety precautions.
“You’re worrying about not just getting yourself sick, but will you get someone else sick?” noted a Firehouse attendee.
One SWSC member described the pressure he felt to keep others safe and informed. “I shopped for older family members and tried to give them correct information about COVID, especially before the vaccines…I thought it was on me to protect others. I felt a lot of loneliness.”
Discussion participants also identified navigating family contact as a source of distress. They recognized that, as older adults, they are categorized as a “high-risk” category for infection and needed to take extra safety precautions. Center members spoke to the discomfort they felt when family members did not take similar precautions. An NEOAC member spoke at length about the nervousness she felt handling family conversations around face-to-face visits, not wanting to impose herself.
Since she did not want to contract COVID or make her family sick, she opted to isolate and avoid in-person contact with family. There were times she would have like to see her adult children face-to-face, but she worried that if she asked for a visit, her children might not say how they really felt out of politeness. “It was hard missing out on so many things, not seeing my family.” Her family did find a compromise: “We have one or two gatherings a year, and just celebrate everything all at once.”
Life during the pandemic can feel traumatic because one’s biggest fears may actually come true. Despite safety precautions, you could still get sick, and you might get so sick that you might need medical intervention. Many of us recall how scary it was to be a patient during the first year of pandemic life. Patients went alone into exam rooms and hospital beds since visitors were rarely permitted due to strict infection control precautions.
Being alone added more fear and uncertainty to our patient experiences. A Firehouse member spoke candidly about her struggle with a severe COVID case. “I was hospitalized, and I was admitted for several weeks,” she told the group. At the time her adult children were at home, dealing with mild cases. During her hospital stay, she felt acutely isolated. “The worst was being alone, and not being able to be with my children and take of them.”
Since March 2020, the traumatic loss of our sense of safety and the comfort of human connection has been compounded by the concrete loss of human life. The older adults in our conversations pointed to the passing of neighbors, friends, and family due to COVID. A SWSC member addressed the desolating shift in former community sanctuaries, like our neighborhood places of worship. When services were able to return back to in-person, she noted, “You would go to church and look around and see the empty seats. They’d passed away.”
When our co-facilitator from the health department, Joshua Lewis, BSN, RN, reported the statistic that Philadelphia has recorded 5,110 deaths due to COVID-19, he asked the attendees to take a moment of silence. “These are more than numbers,” he said. “These were our sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.”
During our three senior center conversations, several older adults mentioned the frustration, confusion, and suspicion that stems from conflicting news sources. They also pointed to the inconsistent presence of COVID coverage depending on other stories in the 24-hour news cycle. To this end, SOWN remains grateful to Lewis and his health department colleague and long-time SOWN collaborator, outreach coordinator, Terri Clark, MPH.
Clark and Lewis served as trusted educators at our events, addressing questions and concerns raised by the attendees. Reliable messengers like Clark and Lewis help to alleviate the anxiety we feel when we aren’t sure where to get our information. Clark brought multiple educational hand-outs for senior center members that included facts about the virus, vaccines and boosters, as well as city resources. She also guided SOWN to apply for rapid COVID test kits to hand out to senior center members at these events.
Lewis provided much-needed vaccine and booster information for attendees. He explained that the COVID vaccine’s main purpose is to minimize the risk of hospitalization if we catch the virus. Regarding boosters, Lewis let attendees know that they can get another booster two months after their last booster shot, regardless of the booster manufacturer. Individuals who catch a break-through COVID case are eligible for their next booster three months after testing positive.
Lewis assured attendees that the health department staff can help schedule vaccine and booster appointments. The PDPH also hold pop-up clinics to meet the need for testing and vaccination. When asked about masking, Lewis acknowledged that people are feeling mask fatigued, but encouraged at the very least wearing a mask indoors, especially around those who have complex health issues and are susceptible to hospitalization.
After the discussions came to an end, Lewis demonstrated how to use the rapid test kits for participants. Clark and Lewis encourage Philadelphians to access two under-used COVID resources available for Philadelphians: 1) free Lyft rides available for COVID-19 vaccine appointments through December 31, 2022 and 2) the Health Department Call Center at 215-685-5488 for any questions about PDPH services, including COVID-19 and the flu/influenza. The Call Center will also help schedule those free Lyft rides to vaccine appointments.
Considering the COVID burnout pushing back at this ongoing public health crisis, Clark and Lewis’s role as trusted messengers remain critical. They regularly engage senior centers as a part of the PDPH’s outreach efforts. When SOWN asked about their work with older adults, they described via email the key role that older adults play in the public health conversation. “We have found that often the ‘grand’ of the family is key to encouraging others to get vaccinated, test for COVID, and follow health guidelines to keep family and friends safe and healthy.”
Now that we have safety guidelines and tools to meet in person, Clark and Lewis’ are seeing how helpful in-person conversation can be for both outreach staff and community members. “Our biggest take-a-way is having the opportunity to meet and listen to older adults in person at the network of older adult centers and community events we staff. Being able to provide resources and answer questions face-to-face addresses many of the technology barriers our older adults face…In-person conversations have been ideal in addressing misinformation and providing community members reliable, factual resources.”
Clark and Lewis highlight the benefit of face-to-face interactions. They can get us out of our own heads and alleviate anxiety. Our conversations showed that many older adults hold vivid memories of fear and distress from their period of isolation. However, our talks also revealed that older adults pursued joy and purpose when their social comforts were cut off. Listening to music, reading the Bible, and getting at least a few minutes of sun were popular ways to de-stress. Nostalgia seemed to bring some ease as well. “I watched a lot of old Westerns on TV, and other old movies like King Kong,” shared a SWSC gentleman.
Another man told participants, “I didn’t really like talking on the phone before, but I found that during the pandemic, I really enjoyed talking to my old friends who I grew up with.”
A SWSC attendee told the group that bought a sewing machine and found relaxation putting her focus there. While the world outside felt chaotic, another center member used time during the pandemic to take control of her health. She told the group, “I concentrated on my weight. I walked up and down the stairs every day. I lost 55 pounds!”
Other participants nodded her way and applauded. Self-care comes in many forms, as another member illustrated: “I found it important to do a positive thing for myself every day, something that brings me pleasure like making jewelry or reading a book.”
The attendees at Firehouse agreed that we are in a better place now in 2022. They expressed that they’ve accepted COVID-19 as a part of our lives and will continue to take each day as it comes. One woman even felt optimistic about the future considering the tools we developed to control the virus. “Even though it seems like we’ll never get rid of it, I feel hopeful because we have the vaccine.”
No matter how burnt out we feel thinking about COVID, dedicated public health workers like Clark and Lewis will keep offering support to you and your family with testing, vaccines, and boosters. SOWN will be there alongside them. Afterall, we know why we’re so tired. The loss is real. The trauma is real. Perhaps if we keep the conversation going and always allow space to voice our exhaustion, we’ll invigorate the compassion we all need to take care of ourselves and each other.
Created in participation with WHYY’s #BoostTruth public service campaign to amplify COVID facts through events, info sharing and community organizing.
About Boost Truth:
Boost Truth is a WHYY public service campaign aimed at combatting COVID-19 misinformation/disinformation by partnering with the grassroots content creators of N.I.C.E. From now through the end of the year, various free programs will be presented by different local media platforms to help provide communities with resources needed to keep them safe and well.
ABOUT SOWN The Supportive Older Womens Network serves grandparent-headed families, caregivers for loved ones, and vulnerable older adults in the Greater Philadelphia region. A grassroots news partner with WHYY/N.I.C.E.
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This column was written by Lori Latimer, SOWN’s Director of Programs. Read last month’s column here.
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