Lakeshore initiatives provide support and community for seniors aging in place

Older Americans are increasingly choosing to “age in place,” staying in their own homes and avoiding the move to a retirement home. Many senior programs now have the express goal of helping older adults stay in their homes longer.

“Most people have a very hard time imagining themselves living with a roommate they don’t know, leaving a home they’ve lived in for 20, 30, 50 years, being on a schedule that is not their own,” says Sarah Milanowski, enrollment coordinator, and marketing specialist at LifeCircles PACE.

Richard Dornbos rides a stationary bicycle as part of his physical therapy at the LifeCircles PACE Hub in Holland Township.However, living alone can bring isolation. It can be just as detrimental to someone’s health as smoking, obesity, or poor diet, according to a study from Brigham Young University.

Isolation also can make pre-existing health conditions worse, Milanowski says. It can increase blood pressure and inflammation, and decrease immune system function, and how regularly someone takes their medicine. When it comes to a person’s health, loneliness can be akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to that same study.

In 2016, the U.S. had almost 50 million seniors (age 65 and older), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2040, it is estimated that number will be more than 80 million, and will be closing in on 100 million by 2060. Almost a third of seniors live alone, Census Bureau figures show. And as the population ages, the problem of isolation and loneliness among seniors will only amplify.

PACE — Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly — is a nationwide alternative to nursing home care. LifeCircles is a nonprofit serving portions of Ottawa and Allegan counties, and all of Muskegon County.

“When you leave your home of who-knows-how-long [for a nursing home], you often find feelings of hopelessness, of despair, depression,” Milanowski says. “One of the cons [of aging in place] is the possible social isolation, but I think if people have a plan and they have support around them, there are a lot of services in place to help.

“There’s lots of ways to meet someone where they’re at,” Milanowski says.

Red flags

There are many red flags and risk factors to look for in older adults who might be lonely:
  • Decreased attention to personal hygiene.
  • Lack of interest in things that used to provide them joy.
  • If someone is having a sensory change (eg. hearing loss), they may choose to self-isolate, so they aren’t embarrassed.
  • Loss of driving privileges can shrink a person’s world dramatically.
  • Death of a spouse.
  • Isolation can affect both those who are homebound and those who are still active. 

PACE initiatives serve those who are 55 or older. Medicare, Medicaid, and private dollars pay for the program services. PACE clients must live in the service area and be able to live safely on their own in the community with support.

Jacqueline Eding (left) and Lisa Chittenden chat and relax at the LifeCircles PACE Hub in Holland Township.They serve older adults in their homes and provide transportation to a PACE Hub, such as the one in Holland, which offers activities, educational classes, and therapies that incorporate social games, day trips, and the occasional musical guest.

“We have people who are forming relationships they might not have expected,” Milanowski says.

Maybe a friend at the center ribs them for skipping a day or they start taking more pride in their self-image and hygiene because they are leaving the house more, she says.

‘Home away from home’

Senior community centers such as Holland’s Evergreen Commons and Four Pointes in Grand Haven furnish a wide variety of services to older adults for a small annual membership fee.

Petra Chavarria crochets and chats with friends on a recent afternoon at the LifeCircles PACE Hub in Holland Township. Evergreen Commons’ woodworking shop, saltwater pool, cafe, and other areas are a sort of living room for those 55 and older. Members can learn a new language, write a memoir, travel, and take part in six different performance groups, 16 games, and eight clubs.

“We always joke: no one lives here, but some of our members would love to because they are here all the time,” says Barb Visser, life enrichment program coordinator at Evergreen Commons.

Socialization is as important as physical fitness, she says.

“(Members) definitely feel like this is their place … their home away from home,” says Amy Millard, Evergreen director of life enrichment and community relations. “There is a great friend network here; relationships are built.”

Beyond socialization

The Evergreen Commons Day Center near downtown Holland provides an alternative to home health services, nursing home, or assisted living facilities with daytime nursing care, meals, and therapies for older adults who need assistance but still live at home.

Four Pointes in Grand Haven provides adults 50 and older access to fitness facilities and classes, arts programming, and crafting classes, as well as dozens of club activities every month. The tax-supported center also helps seniors with personal care, home-delivered meals, homemaking services, and access to regular wellness check calls. 

With age, social connections tend to decrease due to natural circumstances, such as retirement, widowhood, children leaving home, and age-related health problems.

For family members, it can be difficult to see where the line is between checking in on older relatives and respecting their privacy, Milanowski says. Seniors may downplay health concerns or isolation because they don’t want to be a bother. Older adults seeing their friends losing their independence and privileges may fear the same will happen to them if they reveal their struggles, she says.

Nearly half of all seniors feel lonely on a regular basis, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration. There’s a 45% increased risk of mortality in seniors who report loneliness, according to the federal agency. Friendships can speed recovery and reduce the risk of death.

Telephone Reassurance Program

Everyone likes something to look forward to. The Telephone Reassurance Program is for many area seniors. The program started in October with a grant from the Senior Resources of West Michigan. It serves Muskegon, Oceana, and parts of Ottawa counties, including Holland’s 49423 and 49424 zip code areas. For now, staff from Community Access Line of the Lakeshore 211 make the calls, Executive Director Stacey Gomez says.

Any senior who is 60 or older and homebound — or their loved ones — can sign up so the senior receives a regularly-scheduled wellness check phone call. 

But the caller does more than just make sure the senior is doing OK. They listen. They hear stories about careers, struggles, service to country, or even long conversations about food.

Often, these seniors are receiving other assistance, but a phone call to look forward to once or twice a week can brighten an otherwise lonely day. In fact, because the program is part of CALL 211, it can help connect seniors to other programs that can make their lives easier.

That’s what’s happening for Darwin Bjorkman.

Mary Nyitray (left) has blood drawn by LPN Kelly Milanowski at the LifeCircles PACE Hub in Holland Township. Bjorkman will be 83 in March. He lived in an assisted living facility for three years, but the cost increased, and he could no longer afford the skilled care. Now he lives with his caretaker in an apartment in Muskegon. Recently, he signed up for the Telephone Reassurance Program.

“I just wanted to see what they were offering. I’m nosey,” he jokes, but adds more seriously, “It’s pretty nice. You get a chance to talk to somebody. I don’t get out of the apartment much because I’m handicapped. They check up on me.”

Bjorkman has Parkinson’s disease and can no longer drive. Most of his friends have passed away, but he talks a few times a week with his new friends from the Telephone Reassurance Program. They are looking into other services that might benefit Bjorkman.

“We’re able to connect seamlessly into that kind of help,” Gomez says.
Whether it’s an in-person visit or a phone call, a weekly class, or lunch out with friends, loneliness doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion with age. Whether it’s exploring hobbies — old or new — or catching a ride to the grocery store, Lakeshore seniors have access to a plethora of services to make their golden years shine.

For more information on the Telephone Reassurance Program, call 231-733-7003 or 888-353-6717 or email [email protected] for more information on the Telephone Reassurance Program.

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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