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Vermonters are facing their second winter of COVID. Many of those Vermonters are elderly. Some live alone. Some are sick. Some have been isolated from friends and family for a very long time.

Stoic responses and a “Greatest Generation” can-do mentality often mask fears and depression that sneak up during long, gray days and cold evenings without family nearby. A lack of technology, the know-how to use it, money problems and physical challenges can make it hard to meet everyday needs. Add a pandemic, and it can feel like the world may never get back to normal. Grin-and-bear-it only goes so far when loneliness creeps in.

“That’s my worry. That’s the thing that keeps me up at night,” says Lori Vadakin, director of mental health and substance abuse services for United Counseling Service here in Bennington. "It’s the knowing that’s the issue here. How do we know who and where these people are? How do we reach those who are suffering alone or having a hard time asking for help?”

The Banner spoke with numerous seniors, many who have been alone for months because of fears of getting sick or not wanting to burden anyone with problems. Some suffer from bouts of depression or anxiety. Many have difficulty sleeping. Some might even have a hard time being able to meet their everyday needs.

In all of our conversations, one thing that came up repeatedly as the most critical thing standing in the way of people getting what they needed: allowing yourself to ask for help.

Patricia Zemianek

The pandemic has been with us for nearly two years now. Most seniors have managed to weather the storm with typical Vermont determination and strong social connections. One of these is 80-year-old Patricia Zemianek.

Zemianek, of Bennington, has been a widow for nearly 21 years. She lives alone but has managed to get through the past 20 months just fine. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though.

“I stayed in the house, mostly, but I’m an active senior, so staying in the house was difficult. I took a lot of afternoon walks. I did feel sad sometimes but never depressed. I missed my group of friends. I missed the social connection part of that. Mostly I missed family,” she says.

The holidays were difficult. “We always spent holidays together, nine grandchildren, they were always here. Last Thanksgiving, we shared food between the door,” she says. “Even that little bit of contact was important. Christmas was the first time I was alone ever in my life."

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Zemianek says. “There are so many that don’t have the support or the resources I have. It must be very difficult. Every morning when I get up, I repeat to myself how grateful I am for my health and my family. I have no reason to complain.”

Patricia Woodard

“I’ve lived alone for 31 years, now,” says 82-year-old Patricia Woodard of North Bennington. “I have no family here. It’s just me.”

Woodard suffers from multiple conditions, which make it harder to do some of those things that might alleviate the isolation.

“I have cancer, leukemia and COPD. The cancer was in remission for a while, but it came back. I was working at JC Penney last year up until the pandemic hit, and they closed down. They reopened in August, but it was very difficult to wear a mask all day because of the COPD, so I cut back my hours up until they finally closed," she says. "I haven’t had much contact with anyone since then.”

For Woodard, like so many other seniors who live alone, isolation is like a companion that hides in the corners of an empty apartment, which becomes a prison of sorts.

“I don’t have a problem with living alone,” she says, “but loneliness, that’s a different story. Occasionally, I get into that mode, sadness, but I know I can’t stay there. I can’t go down that road for very long."

Weeks went by without any contact, she says. No one checked in. No one at the door.

“It’s very difficult. I have two grandkids. It’s been a long time now since I’ve seen them. My son just turned 49, and I would love to see him walk in here right now, but I know that’s not going to happen,” Woodard says.

For many seniors, the worst part can be the lack of communication.

“There are times when I walk around this apartment, and I can’t talk to anyone, at least face to face, and I stare out the window wondering what I can do, so I vacuum, and I clean things, but it doesn’t help much,” says Woodard. "Five months passed last year before I saw anyone face to face. It was hard. I had some times when I felt a deep sadness, but I knew I couldn’t stay there. I’d try and pull myself out."

One of those ways was going for a car ride. “I’d sometimes get in the car and just drive and drive with no destination. I’d always take the slow road just to see faces. I’d drive to nowhere just to see another person, even a stranger through the car window. It was never enough, but it was what I had,” says Woodard.

Woodard’s salvation came in the way of an abused rescue dog.

“I was watching 'Pet Connection' on one of the local channels, and I saw her on there. When I first got Casey, she wouldn’t come anywhere near me, but it’s better now. She’s given me someone else to care for and think about besides myself,” she says.

With the holidays approaching, Woodard reflects back.

“There is no Thanksgiving. There is no Christmas. I was able to get a Christmas tree last year. If I don’t do that, it would put me in a bad place. Even that one piece of normalcy. It’s just the dog and me. No presents, no visitors. But there’s a tree. That makes a difference.”

She hesitates, then reaches down to pet her dog as she says, “My only real issue now is if I died tomorrow, what’s going to happen to this girl? I would be heartbroken if she had to go back into rescue.”

Al and Virginia Ray

Al and Virginia Ray have been married for over 42 years. Al, 91, was in the hospital with pneumonia in March 2020, just when the pandemic started rolling in.

“They isolated me right away. I didn’t know if I had COVID for three days,” Al says.

Al has emphysema from years of smoking unfiltered Lucky Strikes. Contracting COVID-19 before being vaccinated was their biggest fear.

“Ever since, we’ve been super cautious,” says Virginia, 84. “That’s how this started for us. We stopped everything. I didn’t want him to get sick.”

“I used to go to the rec center in Bennington three times a week, and to the Elks Friday afternoons for a beer and to say hello to friends," Al says. “That stopped immediately. For 20 years, I went to Benson's with a bunch of us old guys, maybe six to eight of us, every Monday for coffee. All of that disappeared overnight," he says.

He adds, "I don’t sleep."

Virginia recalls how she and Al used to volunteer at the library, for GBICS, a Bennington nonprofit, at the hospital.

“Church completely stopped. We haven’t been inside the grocery store since this started.”

An avid reader, Virginia found herself unable to finish a book.

“I just couldn’t read during this whole time. My mind couldn’t concentrate on the words and what they meant. I do feel that that was anxiety.”

The Rays had each other but little contact with anyone else.

“There was great sadness in not seeing our family. We have four children and many grandchildren. The only one we saw was our daughter’s family, and that was through the glass of the door.”

That first winter was the hardest on them. “We spent our first Thanksgiving alone. I kept thinking that eventually we’d just get through it, but it became harder and harder to keep optimistic as the months passed. It was more than a year before Al and Virginia were able to hug their family. 

Despite the troubles of the last 20 months, they both still feel fortunate.

“We are very lucky to have each other. I think those people who live alone, it must be very difficult.”

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When asked about any fears they still might carry, Al becomes quiet, then says, “Something happening to her. I don’t want to be without her here.” 

A struggle understood

Bernard Bandman, executive director of the Center for Communication in Medicine in Bennington, knows that struggle. 

“The problem is really profound. People who are older, especially those that are isolated are extremely cautious and worried about getting sick. Because if they do, the chances are greater, even with being vaccinated, that they will get ill or hospitalized, or they might even die. Some of them live in constant fear of going hungry. Some are on limited incomes," Bandman says. "There’s a lot of anxiety about paying for heating this winter, terror, really, not just fear. These people can be terrified that there might be no one there for them if they need help.” 

For those people that might feel isolated this winter, there are resources available. They only need ask.

“A lot of folks are proud. They resist asking for help. They’ve lived a long time, through a lot of difficult situations,” Bandman says. “It’s the Vermont way. They don’t ask. It’s the way of that generation who might have lived through the Great Depression as kids, or remember what it was like during World War II. They’ll do without, or they’ll figure it out somehow. They’ve survived. They are strong-willed about being able to do things themselves. I admire them, but they can also get themselves in a real tight spot by not asking for help.” 

Long term costs to mental health 

Bandman says it’s not just about emotional isolation. Practically speaking, even going to the grocery store can create a lot of anxiety.

"There’s more and more data showing that anxiety and depression can have lasting physical effects, such as high blood pressure and heart issues. People who live alone and have diabetes do not comply to their medication or diet needs as well as those that are not alone. We won’t know until after the fact what happens to these people. It’s almost like a form of PTSD," he says.

According to Bandman, the first step is to recognize the signs, and then to take that important next step to reach out for help.

“If you are fortunate enough that you have family and friends, reach out to them. You may not be able to see them face-to-face like you might want to, but you can talk with them. That makes a difference," says Bandman. "If you find yourself immobilized by anxiety and depression, reach out for professional help. You can start with your primary care provider." 

What’s important, Bandman says, is that people stop and think about how they are feeling.

"Am I feeling depressed? Am I feeling overly anxious? Am I worried all the time?" Bandman says. "It takes that willingness to acknowledge there’s a problem.”  

Bandman encourages others in the community to reach out.

“It might be a family member or a friend, maybe even someone noticing that the mail hadn’t been picked up in a while or having the awareness to knock on a door to check in on someone. It all helps, and could possibly save a life. It makes a world of difference to know that you’re not alone,” says Bandman. 

Isolation a chief concern

Southern Vermont Council on Aging Director Samantha Brennan sees a definite uptick in mental health ailments since the pandemic. That has her worried.

“My biggest concern is isolation. I worry about basic needs. Are they getting food or going without? Many don’t have the capacity or even the technology to go online for help. We don’t even know how to access them, these people who are suffering in silence without anyone knowing.” 

United Counseling's Lori Vadakin is very familiar with the reluctance of this particular generation to ask for help.

“There was a situation recently where a gentleman fell while undressed in his home. We don’t know how long he was lying, this frail and thin elderly male, undressed on his floor without no one knowing he was there.”

Help is out there 

“There’s no need to be alone,” says Vadakin. “There’s evidence that just connecting to other people alleviates symptoms of sadness and anxiety. Counseling can be had through the phone, online, or in person."

Vadakin says the he agency can help get elder residents connected, even if they lack the technology.

"We can arrange for a visit from a case manager to show them how to use a tablet. There are programs to get Tablets into the hands of people who can’t afford them," she says.

There are grocery volunteer programs where someone picks up their list and delivers food, programs with the library, even senior companion programs, groups, and organizations that are ready and willing to help," says Vadakin. "We just need to know where you are. This is so important. Knowledge in the hands of just one senior who needs help can be a lifesaver.”

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These are some of the Vermont-based and community organizations mentioned in our story that offer help to seniors and others with mental health, Pandemic, and other everyday issues they might be facing. If you or a loved one is having trouble coping, or feel overwhelmed, please reach out.

United Counseling Service of Bennington County

802-442-5491

www.ucsvt.org

The Center of Communication in Medicine/ Bennington VT

802-442-5800

b.bandman@speaksooner.org

speaksooner.org

Southern Vermont Council on Aging

800-642-5119

https://svcoa.org

D.A.L.E. Adult Services Division/State of Vermont

802-241-2401

www.dail.vermont.gov/divisions/asd

Vermont Center for Independent Living

802-241-0386

www.vcil.org


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