February 2020: The smell of fresh-baked challah fills the dining room where a grandfather sits, surrounded by his children and grandchildren on Shabbat evening. February 2021: A grandfather sits in an empty dining room lacking the aroma of a warm Shabbat meal, surrounded by framed photographs of his family. “In June 2020, more than half of older adults (56%) reported feeling isolated from others compared to 27% in 2018,” according to the National Poll of Healthy Aging at the University of Michigan. This is the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The elderly population has been hit especially hard by the pandemic, both physically and emotionally. In addition to being at a higher risk of catching Covid, many elderly people have been experiencing immense isolation and loneliness because of the lack of in-person visits with their children and grandchildren due to safety precautions. Additionally, other outlets for socialization and community have been limited due to the pandemic. While there are other ways to stay connected such as the use of the internet and platforms like Zoom, these forms of communication are often not ideal or accessible to elderly people. Without the ability to attend in-person synagogue or celebrate simchas with their loved ones, the Jewish elderly population has experienced a great loss.
Luckily, there are many outreach groups through Jewish and secular organizations that aim to help seniors stay connected to their communities, and they are being utilized especially during the pandemic.
UJA (United Jewish Appeal) Federation New York has created multiple initiatives to assist Holocaust survivors during the pandemic. During the Holocaust, Jews and others were isolated from their families and the world. While incomparable events, the coronavirus has also isolated people from the rest of humanity, and some Holocaust survivors are likely experiencing those emotions felt during the Holocaust resurface. Isolation, anger, the fear of the unknown… The emotions felt during the Holocaust draw parallels to those caused by the pandemic, making quarantine even more difficult. According to their website, UJA has allocated $785,000 for “emergency cash for rent, medicine, and other basic needs; food and meal delivery; personal protective equipment and transportation for home healthcare workers; telephone emergency response system units so they can get immediate help if needed; and technology to connect to virtual programming, helping to alleviate isolation.”
Founded in 1936, Self Help Community Services had the initial goal to help maintain the independence of those fleeing Nazis as they tried to rebuild their lives in America. Over the years, their goal has evolved into helping the elderly population live independently while staying connected to the rest of society. Around ten years ago, Self Help Community Services, a non-profit targeted at aging populations, developed the Virtual Senior Center (VCS). According to their website, VCS was created to “bring online, face‐to‐face, and highly interactive classes, cultural experiences, and discussion groups to seniors who are homebound,” with the hopes of reducing feelings of sorrow and despair due to disconnection from others while improving the quality of life of the elderly. VCS has been an incredible organization since its creation, and the pandemic has significantly highlighted the need for organizations like it.
Another organization that provides many resources and social connections to seniors is Dorot, which realizes the detrimental impacts that isolation has on aging members of society. Pre-pandemic, Dorot offered a multitude of services to the elderly such as escorts to errands, holiday celebrations, cultural events, at-home visits, and many special events and social gatherings. Luckily, Dorot has been able to replicate many of these cardinal resources virtually, such as free online enrichment and wellness classes, the opportunity to Zoom with teens, and one-on-one technology coaching to make online communication more accessible.
Organizations such as UJA, Self Help Community Services/VCS, and Dorot play integral roles in enhancing the well-being of the elderly population at all times, but specifically now, amidst the pandemic.
If you are interested in volunteering with UJA, check out these opportunities.
If you are interested in teaching a class for the Virtual Senior Center, click here.
For virtual volunteer opportunities with Dorot, click here.