Isolation a risk for vulnerable populations

Staff and members gather at Vail Pace, a clubhouse for people with mental illness. File photo

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Duane Schley spent three days each week at Mount Olivet’s adult day service facility in Windom.

Schley, who has Alzheimer’s disease, loved the program, said Sandy, his wife of 54 years.

He’d made a lot of friends there, she said, and he enjoyed the camaraderie, education, music and visits from children in the affiliated day care program.

“Every single day, he would just talk one stream all the way from Mount Olivet Day Service home about how wonderful the day had been,” she said.

People of all ages and backgrounds have dealt with the shuttering of gathering spaces because of the pandemic and the governor’s stay-at-home order.

While the isolation is difficult for many, it’s perhaps toughest on people who are already on the margins of society, such as those with mental illness and functional disabilities.

Service providers said their participants have remained in good spirits, although many don’t have smartphones and lack internet access.

One expert said people with such conditions may be more susceptible to the loneliness that comes with prolonged closures and social distancing.

“Social isolation among the most vulnerable is going to be even worse,” said Donna McAlpine, a medical sociologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “This crisis is going to hit people who are marginalized or vulnerable in the best of times way harder than it’s going to hit the middle or the upper class.”

Support systems

Research has shown that prolonged social isolation and loneliness can lead to increased mortality rates and that people with certain conditions are more susceptible to it.

In a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation study, 22% of U.S. adults reported feeling constant loneliness. But that figure jumped to 45% for people with a debilitating disability and 47% for people with a mental health condition.

While there hasn’t yet been clear data, McAlpine predicted that people with severe and persistent mental illness will be hit harder by the coronavirus than other populations.

Many people with serious mental illnesses don’t have deep family or community support systems, said Chad Bolstrom, a licensed counselor who runs the Vail Place clubhouse in South Uptown.

Vail Place is a community resource center for people with a serious or persistent mental illness.

It provides its members everything from socialization and recreation activities to daily meals, work and education opportunities.

“We’re one of the places that they know people see them for their strengths,” Bolstrom said.

Bolstrom said Vail Place closed its physical spaces on March 17, the day Gov. Tim Walz’s first stay-at-home order went into effect.

Bolstrom said many members have co-occurring conditions such as asthma that would elevate their risk should they contract COVID-19.

Since physically closing, Bolstrom said food security and physical isolation have been issues for members and that many feel unsafe venturing out of their homes.

The organization, which has retained its entire staff, has been coordinating grocery deliveries and connecting people to resources. It has also built a “virtual” clubhouse and has been trying to get members who don’t have laptops or smartphones access to low-cost devices.

So far, most Vail Place members have remained stable, Bolstrom said. The one member who was hospitalized has been released, and a lot have been talking about how they’re managing anxiety, boredom and depression.

“I’ve been impressed with how the community has pulled together,” he said.

Vail Place member and Southwest Minneapolis resident Lori Megow has been attending virtual clubhouse meetings and classes and remotely working for the organization’s business department during the pandemic.

Megow, who has bipolar and anxiety disorders, said working remotely has gone smoothly and that she cried during her first telephone meeting because she was so happy to hear other people’s voices.

“It’s important to try and keep the clubhouse running so that way we have a place to go back to,” she said.

‘Void in his life’

At the Mount Olivet Day Services, operations have also been shut down since March 17, program director Ginny Cullen said.

That was nearly two weeks before the state Department of Human Services ordered any adult day programs that remained open to close.

Before the pandemic, up to 35 adults with functional disabilities came to the program each weekday for meals, socialization and activities such as exercise and crafts. About 60 people are enrolled; their average age is 79.

Most program participants live with a family member or live in group housing, Cullen said, noting that participation provides a respite for caregivers.

Over the past month, Cullen has been calling participants, most of whom have been confined to their homes. She and her staff have mailed puzzles and other activities to participants.

Some participants have struggled, and others have been able to establish routines, Cullen said. One has been talking daily with a program volunteer. Another is sorting through pictures with her daughter.

Sandy Schley said husband, Duane, has remained in good spirits during the quarantine — particularly after their son came by one day to play guitar — but that he sleeps more.

She said she tries to keep him active but it’s hard for her to provide the same level of excitement as Mount Olivet did.

“There’s a void in his life,” she said.

To be Duane’s full-time caregiver, Sandy left her full-time “post-retirement” job as a software project manager at Epicor. She had been there since 2011.

“It was bittersweet,” she said. “It wasn’t really the way I had intended for it to go.”

Windom resident Marie Morocco had been sending her mom, Fran Jones, to Mount Olivet since last summer.

She said her mother, who has dementia, is doing fine during the pandemic but that it’s hard to consistently keep her engaged.

Morocco, a nurse who works full time, said she cares for Jones on her own.

That hadn’t always been easy before the pandemic for Morocco, who is starting an organization aimed at easing caregiver burnout.

When Mount Olivet closed, Morocco scrambled to find friends who could watch her mother. She said she has struggled to find quality caregivers and wishes the federal government would have provided relief to people in her situation.

“I imagine I’m not the only one who’s scrambling,” she said.