Fran Stekoll isn’t used to being pushed around—literally or figuratively. But for the first time in her life, the 89-year-old finds herself in a wheelchair and under the constant care of others.
Stekoll tries to remain a vibrant and inspiring force at Dominican Oaks, a rather upscale retirement community located on Paul Sweet Road in Santa Cruz. She sings in a musical ensemble called the Harmonics, leads weekly grief support groups for widows and widowers and is currently working diligently to complete an online master’s degree in mental health counseling.
Covid, though, has presented new challenges for Stekoll, as well as the other 208 residents of Dominican Oaks, and seniors throughout the country.
“I’ve noticed that the pandemic has been depressing—and burdensome—for a lot of people. Especially for those who are normally outgoing and naturally social,” says Stekoll. “For years, I couldn’t do groups, support activities and be out with other people. I learned a lot about who I really was.”
Older people are well aware that they’re at greater risk from Covid, and the pervasive fear has created a long list of co-occurring mental and emotional issues. The psychological well-being of older adults is under attack from multiple directions.
“For my entire life, I’ve never been isolated. None of us have ever been isolated like that before. Living in constant fear,” says Stekoll. “Covid has taught me—all of us seniors—how to adapt.”
According to the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging (NCMHA), there’s been a dramatic uptick of mental health conditions in older adults since the onset of the pandemic. It’s a health care emergency spawned by a health care emergency, with more than 20 million—or 25-30% of seniors—reporting substantial increases in anxiety and depressive disorders since April 2020. Half of men and women age 50-80 report feeling regularly stressed out and isolated from others, according to the recent Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.
Social isolation among seniors has become so pervasive that it’s now widely considered to be a major public health concern, with one in two older adults at risk. Seniors experiencing loneliness are at a higher risk of impaired cognitive functioning, exaggerated levels of depression and impaired physical health, according to researchers.
The serious risks surrounding loneliness are gradually being recognized throughout the world. The U.K. and Japan have even appointed “Ministers of Loneliness” to combat isolation. One recent study indicates that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as puffing on three cigarettes a day.
Her hair pulled back and wearing a pressed collared shirt and an easy smile, Dominican Oaks Administrator Amy Salnir sits on a velvety lobby couch to speak about her community. Masks and temperature scans are a must, and some of the residents that shuffle by us keep their distance. There’s still a vibe that things are not totally completely normal.
“The journey for our residents, and all seniors, it’s been difficult, with the lost activity and functions brought on by Covid. There’s been so much fear and loss during the pandemic. Reduced activities, meals together and social gatherings—it certainly affected residents’ mental health. There was an overall sense of isolation and loneliness,” says Salnir.
Taking the helm of Santa Cruz’s poshest senior living facility during a raging pandemic was a bit of a baptism by fire for Salnir. “There were so many unknowns,” she says. “For the community and for the world.”
Salnir is working to create a semblance of normalcy for residents. Some clubs are congregating again, there are a variety of indoor and outdoor classes and activities on the calendar each day and the dining room is emitting that happy clinking and clattering sound during mealtimes.
Today, Dominican Oaks is emphasizing the physical and mental health of its residents. There are support groups for women, various forms of grief, Parkinson’s, depression, Alzheimer’s and many other ailments. Socially distanced outdoor activities are offered for guests at every comfort level at all hours of the day.
Center of Community
Many local seniors, however, live on their own, without a built-in social network like the one at Dominican Oaks. That’s where Vicky Howell comes in. With slicked black grey hair and sporting a well-worn black Raiders t-shirt, 80-year-old Vicky Howell gives off the air of a punk-rock grandma. Prior to retiring to take on reception duties at the Mid County Senior Center (MCSC) in Capitola, she endured long years of handling notoriously difficult patrons at the DMV. Her two-day-a-week volunteer gig at the MCSC was, in contrast, easy and fulfilling. And then came the pandemic.
“When Covid hit, a lot of people I know just kind of gave up,” says Howell. “They isolated themselves, and it wasn’t good. They did nothing. They got so scared that they basically quit living. They stayed holed up in their houses and just stayed there. Afraid and not having the strength to start living again,” Howell remembers.
The MCSC offers local seniors a bounty of classes, groups, parties, events and all forms of physically and mentally stimulating activities. It’s always been an easy and budget-friendly way for the older residents of Santa Cruz County to join a supportive and vibrant community. But the doors of the Senior Center were closed for almost two years.
“We had to stop everything—trips, meetings, events and dances—for a long time,” says Howell. “We’re trying to get things back to what they were. But we’ve lost over 100 members. It’s still a scary situation for a lot of people.”
Howell has felt the effects herself, too. “Before we re-opened, there was nowhere to go. I missed interactions with other people—my community. Interactions with anybody. I developed severe depression,” she says. “Being here gives me a reason to get up in the morning. Otherwise, I’d stay isolated and in bed all day.”
Since Mid County Senior Center gradually began to reopen in June, Howell’s new desk duties have included verifying Covid vaccinations (required for entry), handing out N95 masks, providing free 911 cell phones, collecting payments and helping members sign up for new activities. She spends a lot of her pro-bono hours helping members feel comfortable again.
To Howell, a senior with good mental health “keeps herself busy, has a positive attitude and has things to look forward to. Someone active and part of a community.”
The Senior Center’s always-popular and delightfully raucous dances are back—though attendance is down significantly. And the monthly calendar includes yoga classes, gardening groups, book and gaming clubs, swing and line dance instruction, photo tutorials and even an Ikebana Japanese flower arranging course.
Covid is still a major threat, and while much of the world begins to normalize—and the majority of us now go through our days maskless—senior citizens must remain cautious.
“Seniors are known to suffer more greatly with symptoms of Covid. More hospitalizations. More deaths. Just knowing this adds to a senior’s stress level. The fear of catching Covid remains real,” says Carol Williamson, former president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). “Mental health is affected by all of this. The biggest enemy of our mental health is fear. And Covid is still providing seniors with a big dose of fear.”
Mental health conditions are treatable. But they are also often severely misunderstood and stigmatized in the U.S. Anxiety, depression and PTSD are often ridiculed, stereotyped or judged. Studies indicate that an average of one in three seniors say that they might have hesitation about seeking mental health care in the future.
In many cases, the diagnosis and treatment of a mental health disorder is also more complicated for older adults. Real issues like depression or repeated memory lapses are commonly overlooked or dismissed as normal characteristics of “getting older.”
Seniors must be open and vocal about any mental health difficulties they may be having, as there exists a wide variety of proven medications and strategies that can be used to combat these conditions. Setting regular goals and establishing routines can solidify a daily schedule. And exercising, having a regular sleep pattern, supplying the body and mind with lots of natural light, meditation, deep breathing and staying away from alcohol work wonders, too, experts say.
“Walking is a great way to lift the spirits,” says Williamson. “Our county is full of beautiful places to walk. Seacliff Beach, West Cliff, East Cliff, UCSC, the wharf and mountain trails or parks. Walk anywhere. Listen to music you love. Start a hobby. Read. Think. Keep learning new things. Cook. Garden. Get a pet. Cry when you need to and tell someone how you feel. Allow the truth of your feelings. Try to think thoughts that make you feel good. Give yourself compliments. Live well mentally.”
Mental Health Resources
Older Adult Mental Health Services Program: 1400 Emeline Ave., Bldg. K, Santa Cruz
831-454-4170 (Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm)
800-952-2335 (24 hours)
National Alliance on Mental Illness Santa Cruz County (NAMI): namiscc.org (831-427-8020)
Community Connection: ccsantacruz.org (831-425-8132)