Many social outlets remain shuttered, tarnishing golden years for some

  • Jean Bosworth has been largely homebound for several months, as her regular social gatherings and outings have been canceled. Seniors, who have the highest risk of complications from the coronavirus, have felt isolated throughout the pandemic. Erin McIntyre — Ouray County Plaindealer
    Jean Bosworth has been largely homebound for several months, as her regular social gatherings and outings have been canceled. Seniors, who have the highest risk of complications from the coronavirus, have felt isolated throughout the pandemic. Erin McIntyre — Ouray County Plaindealer

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Jean Bosworth’s life had a rhythm: weekly senior luncheons on Mondays, long card games and potlucks on Fridays and church services on Sundays.

Bosworth, 95, is in two book clubs and typically plays monthly games of mahjong with friends, a Chinese game played with tiles, like cards. She looks forward to walking along the river, talking with people she meets.

For months now, all of those outings have been canceled. Her trips to buy groceries have been replaced by deliveries from her son, her regular card games with phone calls, her book dub meetings traded for solitary reading at home.

“I never thought of grocery shopping as recreation before,” Bosworth said.

“I don’t even know what day it is anymore,” the Ridgway resident said. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference, except for having an appointment to get to.”

The restrictions and risks of the pandemic that have stymied social lives have taken an especially severe toll on seniors, whose vulnerability to the virus has left them even more isolated.

“I’ve been really very lonely and very depressed,” said Mary Maniodc of Ridgway, who also used to come to weekly card games. “I usually go to church and take part in things, and not going out has really made a big difference in my life.”

She misses seeing people, and even the interaction and exercise that came with grocery shopping. But her late husband was a doctor, and she’s taking the medical advice about the virus seriously, donning a mask even in her own yard and staying away from any gatherings. “I have had a heart attack, and I am 91 years old. That’s really just asking for it if I go out,” Mardock said.

Senior residents have found themselves relying on others to venture out in the world, for fear of interacting with those who may have the virus but don’t know they’re contagious. It’s been tough for some who are accustomed to doing things for themselves.

“I’ve been used to, for many years, being totally independent,” Bosworth said. “It’s pretty hard to be told to stay put, stay in place, we’ll take care of you.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised that older people are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, and said the highest risk “is among those aged 85 or older.” Just over one-quarter of Ouray County’s residents are 65 or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One resident has died from the virus in the county, an 81-year-old man who died at Montrose Memorial Hospital in April.

Bosworth and Mardock were both regulars at the weekly Neighbor to Neighbor senior lunches in Ouray, which have been canceled since March. During the last senior lunch upstairs in the Massard Room at city hall, local health officials discussed the need to socially distance and warned attendees they’re the most vulnerable population where COVID-19 is concerned.

“We just don’t feel like we can put any of our seniors at risk," said Donna Whiskeman, founder of the organization. “We have made the decision not to gather in any way.”

Senior lunches, other social activities and the weekly van trip to Montrose for groceries have all been canceled for now, though the organization is still coordinating individual grocery pickup and dropoff for those who need it, as well as yardwork and other low-contact assistance.

“We’re a very close-knit group of friends that can’t see each other right now, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. “Both the volunteers and the seniors are definitely feeling the separation, and it’s not a good feeling.”

Some activities that draw an older crowd have resumed, offering glimpses of normalcy.

Two groups that regularly exercise together at the Ouray Hot Springs Pool have returned: the deep water aerobics “Ice Cubes” and the “Polar Bears,” a group made up of mostly older women who exercise in the shallower pool.

“The Polar Bears, at one point, had a pretty social aspect to it,” said Barb Wade, the unofficial leader of the Ice Cubes. “A lot of older people who came, it was their triweekly social outing.”

When the pool closed this spring, those dasses ended, and they hadn’t resumed under the new limitations when the pool reopened. Last week, the pool added a morning session, when members have priority for entrance, and allowing the Ice Cubes and Polar Bears to return to their routines.

About six women gathered Friday to follow the recording of longtime Polar Bears teacher Joan Fedel, who formed and led the group until she died in 2017. Half of the participants wore masks in the pool as they followed Fedel’s instructions to march, circle their arms and kids along with ragtime piano music.

Fedel was known for her dedication to the elacs: Participants recalled her floating in the pool with her oxygen tank trailing behind her, and her ability to touch her knee to her forehead, even at 92. Even three years after her death, her voice still encourages them to keep moving. “Thanks, Joan,” one woman grumbled during a lengthy stretch of running in place.

After the class, some stayed to continue conversations, and said the return to the pool had improved not only their physical health, but also their mental health.

“Now we’re all detached from what we were so attached to,” said Donnalee Brown, who now lives in Montrose but is a loyal member of the Ice Cubes and happily returned to the pool to see friends. “It’s going to take awhile to get back into the swing of things.” After three months of isolation, she was glad to see “familiar faces and the enthusiasm of people.”

The Ouray Elks Lodge resumed Tuesday and Friday night dinners again last month, initially offering takeout, then outdoor-only dining, and now regular meals in the lodge for members.

“The Elks Lodge does have a lot of older patrons, so to get out and see each other again and sorialie has been a really big deal,” Exalted Ruler Bette Maurer said. “It’s an individual decision to make,” and some of the recent returners have included people in their 90s, she said.

“The fact that they can socialize is much more important than staying in their house,” she said.

About two dozen people came to pizza night Friday, where they celebrated Jo and Bill Lister’s 67th wedding anniversary and prepared sandwiches for Dick and M.E. Spirek’s memorial service the next day. No one at the lodge wore a mask.

“We come here to be with friends and have a good time; it’s sad if we can’t do this,” said Jo Lister. “People, psychologically, do not like to be separated from people; we need to gather and associate.”

She dismissed any risks of gathering, and said the pandemic is “all a fear tactic.”

Bosworth was able to return to church when the United Church of the San Juans began holding outdoor services in Hartwell Park earlier this month.

“Having our socially distanced seats, enjoying the full church service, I look forward to those,” she said. “I wave at a lot of friendly faces and have a chance to visit with a few here and there.”

Mardock tried to attend the outdoor service. But she kept her distance, staying in her car and straining, unsuccessfully, to hear the sermon. “It did get me out, and I did get to see some of my old friends,” she said, “but I came home and listened to it on my iPad.” She also recently started a virtual Bible study through the church, “so that has helped a lot, getting to see people on it and talking.”

“People from the church have called me and talked to me on the phone, which I’m very grateful for,” she said. Another friend has been dropping off books for her to read and pass the time, and her son visits from Montrose, though he’s careful to keep his distance, too.

For those remaining at home, technology and distanced visits have been a welcome reprieve.

Bosworth’s four children were supposed to visit earlier this spring to celebrate her 95th birthday, but three canceled their travel from out of state due to the pandemic.

Her son delayed his trip from California until this week, when he made sure to wear a mask inside the house the entire time, she said. Just before he left, she finally got a hug.

Her neighbors, however, made sure the day didn’t go unnoticed.

“I looked out the window and half of the neighborhood was gathered out there, and they all sang happy birthday,” she said. “That was a great tribute to the friendly neighborhood, of mostly young families.”

Journalist Liz Teitz is telling stories for the Ouray County Plaindealer with help from Report for America, a nonprofit organization with a mission to place reporters in underserved areas across the country. Please make a tax-deductible donation to help fund more journalism like this by clicking here.