For vulnerable seniors, reopening doesn’t end isolation

  • While waiting for a take-out food order to be brought to her car, Amelia Sereen, of Lebanon, right, asks another customer what she ordered in Lebanon, N.H., Friday, May 29, 2020. Sereen has been supporting her favorite local restaurants throughout her isolation. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news photographs — James M. Patterson

  • Amelia Sereen, 77, of Lebanon, is taking her isolation seriously, only going out for medicine and food, and enforcing a 20 foot distance from others in response to COVID-19, Friday, May 29, 2020. “Once I got serious, I got really serious,” she said. “I haven’t touched anyone in months and no one has been in my house in months.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Joan Hartwell, 78, left, tests the direction of the wind when having a visit with neighbor Ann Perbohner, 65, near their homes in West Lebanon, N.H., on Friday May 29, 2020. Across the street from their homes is Sachem Fields. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news — Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2020 9:08:00 PM
Modified: 5/29/2020 9:07:52 PM

WEST LEBANON — As the pandemic hit the Upper Valley in early March, Ann Perbohner hunkered down at home.

Early on, she said, she focused on sorting out how best to get groceries. Since then, she’s found volunteer shoppers, has been getting Instacart deliveries and doing curbside pickup at the Upper Valley Food Co-op in White River Junction.

With that immediate problem at least somewhat remedied, the 65-year-old retired librarian, who lives alone and has underlying health conditions, has had more time to miss seeing other people.

“If I don’t call people, then nobody knows if I’m OK or not,” she said in a phone interview.

Her son and his family live in New York City. She communicates with them via video chat, reading books to her two grandchildren, and sending care packages with food and puzzles.

“I’m very sad,” said Perbohner, a West Lebanon resident. “Because it will be what? Maybe a year until I can see them.”

Even as things in the Twin States reopen, state and federal health officials continue to recommend that people over 65 and those with underlying health conditions that could exacerbate COVID-19 symptoms stay home and connect with others by phone, video and computer. Eight in 10 U.S. deaths due to COVID-19 have been in adults over 65, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Perbohner and other older residents of the Upper Valley have been taking care to avoid COVID-19, but doing so means they are forgoing most in-person visits with friends and family members, as well as other activities they previously enjoyed.

Isolation itself is a risk factor for health conditions such as heart disease, depression and cognitive impairment, according to the Vermont Department of Disabilities, Aging and Independent Living.

“With 40,000 older Vermonters living alone ... 10,000 living below the poverty level, and many of those without access to internet, we know that social isolation and its negative health impacts have increased during the pandemic,” said Angela Smith-Dieng, who directs DAIL’s Adult Services Division.

Smith-Dieng also said that places where older adults might have gone for pre-pandemic support such as senior centers and adult day centers have closed. Though Meals on Wheels deliveries have continued, many seniors are “alone for most of the time,” she said.

Clients served by the eight senior centers operated by the Grafton County Senior Citizens Council tell staff members who call them regularly that they are feeling lonely and depressed, said Kathleen Vasconcelos, the organization’s executive director.

“They’re grateful for the phone calls and enjoy having someone to talk with,” she said.

At some Grafton County senior centers, clients are invited to stop by in person and knock on windows in order to have a visual connection with staff, she said. Many of the organization’s clients don’t have access to technology needed for video chatting, reliable internet connections or familiarity with the equipment.

Deanna Jones, director of The Thompson senior center in Woodstock, said she’s been surprised at the popularity of a curbside meal pickup option the center is offering. In addition to food, seniors also can pick up newspapers, puzzles, books, weights and medical equipment.

Some participants have said the option gets them out of the house and allows them to briefly connect with other people from the safety of their car, Jones said.

“It’s more of a social thing than you would think,” she said.

The Thompson also now hosts a weekly game of bingo by phone using a toll-free line set up for the purpose. Jones said the new game has drawn participants ranging in age from 11 to 96.

“It’s really been more fun than I expected,” Jones said.

Without in-person activities and events, older adults around the Upper Valley are finding ways to stay connected. Some are using technology, but others are turning to more old-fashioned modes of communication.

Amelia Sereen, a 77-year-old retired physician assistant who has survived a heart attack and has been staying home since early March, said there’s a “way in which virtual things are better.”

Sereen, a former member of the Lebanon Zoning Board, said she was able to do things around her house as she listened to a recent Planning Board meeting via Zoom. She turned off the video and just let the audio play.

Sereen said she’s also used Zoom to continue a weekly meet-up with friends.

They used to go out to dinner at a time that was earlier than Sereen likes to eat; now they can have their Zoom meet-up and she can eat later.

It also allows a friend who is now living in Florida to participate.

The time at home has allowed her to add a new activity to her schedule. She now has a weekly Zoom date with a group of cousins, whom she hadn’t kept in touch with much before the pandemic.

“Something really nice has come out of it,” she said.

Jodi Austin, a 78-year-old Hanover resident with cardiac issues and lingering symptoms related to a tick bite last year, now visits with friends during a weekly online coffee social hosted by the Aging Resource Center in Lebanon, where she normally volunteers.

She also enjoys sharing photos with fellow members of the Quechee Area Camera Club. Participants post photos to the group’s website and then trade comments back and forth.

“That’s really been a blessing to me,” she said, noting that it also keeps her active outdoors.

She uses the phone, Facebook and email to keep in touch with her friends. And as the weather has warmed, she now visits with friends at opposite ends of a picnic table outside her apartment in Summer Park, a housing development that is located next to the Richard W. Black Community Center and a short walk from the Hanover location of the Co-op Food Stores.

Doug Shane, a writer and consultant in his early 70s, has been staying at home in Vershire with his wife, Deb Delmore, since early March. Aside from shopping trips in West Lebanon once every few weeks and a socially distanced outdoor birthday party for a grandchild in early May, the couple have been staying in touch with loved ones by phone and mail.

They’ve considered Zoom, but worry about security risks, he said.

Despite the precautions, Shane developed respiratory symptoms severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency department at the White River Junction VA Medical Center in mid-May. He tested negative for COVID-19 but suspects it might have been a false reading. The symptoms, which include a cough, have lasted for more than two weeks.

In the midst of his lingering illness, Shane said he has found time for fun. He learned of a survey conducted by CNN and Sesame Street looking for questions for the Muppets and decided he’d like to ask “if it would be safe to share a cookie with Cookie Monster.”

He had to get a 6-year-old grandson involved, but the question is slated to air on Saturday morning, he said.

“It’s horrible being old,” he said. “I’ll show them.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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