New group focuses on socialization, education for older adults

As the past two years have taken a toll on the mental, emotional and physical health of people everywhere, one group has been hit particularly hard — older adults.

Local seniors have been separated from their families, friends and social networks. Precautions against COVID-19 left them alone in their homes, unable to do the activities they enjoy or even run basic errands. A skyrocketing number of seniors faced food insecurity amid economic uncertainty.

“The past two years have been incredibly challenging for a multitude. Isolation, loneliness and depression reached an all-time high,” said Kimberly Smith, executive director of Johnson County Senior Services.

To meet this challenge head on, Smith and others working with seniors throughout the county have birthed a new initiative. Johnson County Aging in Action is a new effort to enhance the quality of life of older adults by creating and maintaining a coordinated network of health and social services.

Their hope is to provide a comprehensive and fun approach to living that celebrates the gift of longevity, Smith said.

“There has been such a disparity of what was offered to them,” she said. “This is a way to get them out, not only for socialization, but for education, so they can have their lives truly enhanced with different programs and different pieces.

As the pandemic has progressed, research has shed light on just how difficult 2020 and 2021 have been for older adults.

According to a survey published by the Commonwealth Fund in September 2021, 19% of adults age 65 and older suffered economically from the COVID-19 pandemic, with more losing a job or using up all or most of their savings. Among older adults, 23% did not receive needed help because services were cancelled or very limited during the pandemic.

A study done by researchers at Indiana University, 79% of older adults felt like their social life decreased or was negatively affected by COVID-19. Research has shown that loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression and higher mortality, while closeness to individuals in their networks can result in greater emotional well-being.

“What we found is the pandemic was associated with worse mental health outcomes for many older adults,” said Anne Krendl, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ department of psychological and brain sciences, in a release about the study. “However, for some, having close social networks seemed to serve as a protector against negative mental health outcomes.”

Though the pandemic has exasperated the crisis that seniors face, Johnson County Aging in Action has been in creation for the past two years. Smith and Wendy Sanders, service coordinator for Northwood Franklin Apartments, where a number of seniors live, had been discussing a coalition that would focus on the struggles that older adults face.

A primary concern was encouraging socialization.

“Many studies indicate socialization, engagement and maintaining relationships are critical for seniors’ overall health and wellness, and considered key to successful aging,” Smith said. “Socialization has also been shown to be one of the most effective ways for seniors to improve their mental health. Socialization improves mood, cognition, memory recall, and is associated with healthy behaviors.”

Smith and Sanders went to work making their vision come to life. They found a major supporter in Jean Renk government and community relations manager for Duke Energy, and the company offered to be the program’s Senior Series Support Sponsor.

A major component of the series would be that it is senior led, with meetings every other month that focus on topics and education that older adults are interested in.

To find out what those topics might be, Smith applied for a grant to address isolation of the elderly from the United Way of Johnson County, part of the agency’s COVID-19 Economic Relief Initiative Grant it received from Indiana United Ways. That grant was used to host the Johnson County Senior Summit in December.

“So many have been requesting information about what services are available to them,” she said. “You have to remember, so many seniors in the county are not accessing a computer, and they’re finding out this information on social media or searching.”

About 200 seniors registered to listen to educational speakers on everything from elder law to managing medications to living with purpose. They were able to socialize, enjoy food and fellowship, then leave with a resource and technology bag filled with items to enhance their lives.

Before they left, participants were asked to write down topics that they are interested in and would like to learn more about. Those responses became the backbone of the Aging in Action lunch-and-learn events.

“They listed topics that were important to them. Many of them said mental health, depression, so that’s why this first session was planned,” Smith said.

For the kickoff event on Wednesday, 51 older adults came out to Impact Christian Church in Franklin for a meal of spaghetti and meatballs, dessert and conversation. They had an opportunity to sit together and talk, before a pair of local mental health experts made presentations.

Kendra Pierson, director of business development and operations for Golden Age Home Health, discussed the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder, offering simple tips on ways to be healthier this winter season.

To promote relaxation, physical activity and meaningful connections, Jennifer Pinson from Dynamic Music Services presented a session on music therapy.

Participating seniors were joined with 27 professionals with agencies and businesses that work with seniors. Even with the cold and surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the omicron variant, organizers were pleased with the turnout and results, Smith said.

Locations and dates of future meetings are fluid, as organizers determine the status of the pandemic and take appropriate safety measures, Smith said.

But the next session will be held in March, where participants can ask questions to a panel of professionals. In the summer, organizers are hoping to have pet therapy sessions, and they have other ideas for the rest of the year.

“This is a great way for them to find out what’s available for them in person,” Smith said.