For many, the social isolation of the COVID-19 Stay-at-Home order has been the most challenging aspect of their lives for the past six months. This public health crisis is causing many seniors to be out of public spaces for months.
This long term separation can leave our older population and others who have to self-isolate at increased risk for mental health and physical issues.like increased loneliness, depression, and low levels of cognitive stimulation. Catherine Offord writes in her article How Social Isolation Affects the Brain in the July/August issue of The Scientist, “Social isolation is associated with increased rise of cognitive decline and dementia, as well as mental health consequences such as depression and anxiety.” She points out this social isolation is “often disproportionately affecting vulnerable members of the population such as the elderly.”
While video chatting with my 90 year old mother I realized she has pretty seamlessly integrated technology into her world. While never overtly social, she retains strong ties with her extended family (siblings, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces and nephews) and maintaining those social ties has motivated her to continue to learn new technology, and to reach out to her younger progeny for help. She speaks about how her friends came together to help each other learn new technologies, facebook, email, zoom or how they share a google doc lists of TV programs, or participating in online events. It is these sessions with friends and family that have helped her stay socially connected, not feel alone, and share in the joys and sorrows that have occurred over these months. The skills she has recently gained are in direct opposition to my prior view of my mom as “aging and elderly” in decline and unable to keep up. She just needed the opportunity and motivation to step up to some new challenges. She made me think about how we, Wistariahurst, could better serve our senior citizens.
Likewise, the pandemic has forced museums and cultural institutions to reimage and reinvent the ways we interact and engage our communities. Studies show that cognitive stimulation is part of staying healthy while aging. Thankfully museums are leading the way in offering new ways of engagement, providing cognitive stimulation that seniors need with what Offard calls an “education prescription.”
How can Wistariahurst counteract the lack of stimulation for our isolated senior population? The challenge of developing and delivering intellectually stimulating programs and presentations virtually was accepted. We are happy to announce our line-up of virtual online lectures and learning series beginning on September 16 and occurring weekly through the rest of 2020 and into 2021.
A Community Development Block Grant in response to COVID-19 offered us the opportunity to create a series of learning and engagement presentations to help our seniors stay connected, interact with technology, and learn some new ideas from scholars, artists, and naturalists. The benefit of a virtual platform is that I could reach out to speakers who are physically far away like Boston, Connecticut, New York. The topics for this fall include Wildlife and Environment, Social Justice, Public Art, History, Maps and Resources. The formats include staged readings,discussion panels, historical performance, online skills building, and book and history lectures.
As a collaborator, the Holyoke Council on Aging is assisting seniors with technology needs and instruction in order to participate in the upcoming online programs. All of these activities represent opportunities for seniors to develop new skills by learning new things, gain resilience, exercise problem solving skills and increase their self esteem which in turn lead to improved quality of life and increase social connection.
I look forward to hosting these upcoming virtual events in hopes they will stimulate and engage everyone’s brains. I especially hope to reach our senior neighbors and all those who are feeling isolated, to help them feel connected to their community and to their Wistariahurst.
City Historian and Wistariahurst Curator