BUCKSPORT — What lies behind the numbers? While headlines share stark data of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths — a woman in her 90s from York County, a man in his 80s from Kennebec — and controlling the pandemic now shares the media stage with vaccine news, the elderly, who are most at risk from COVID-19’s worst effects, are living in a changed and increasingly lonely world.
“I feel it,” said 85-year-old Muriel Peacock, her bag of yarn and needles at her feet. She sat recently in a rocking chair socially distanced from Dianne Bisson, 74, and Doris Carpenter, 82, at the Bucksport Senior Center. “Where I live, I have to be stuck in two little, tiny rooms. It’s not good.”
Closed in March at the start of COVID-19’s spread, the center reopened in July, but not for fitness classes and not for community meals, which are being delivered once a week instead.
“That was one of the hardest things for us, to stop coming,” Bisson said. “It was our social time.”
“It’s the sociability,” she said. “We used to have a big group, to lunch together, maybe attend an exercise class.”
On a recent Monday morning, the center’s hallways were empty but for the echoing clang of a metal cart. The three women occupied just one corner of the large, sun-filled lounge.
“We have some activities that are still going on, just because people can come in and do them while wearing a mask and staying distanced,” Director William Foster said. “But they are very isolated. There’s some seniors getting the meals because they know someone will come and visit them.” Meals are being delivered three times per week.
Phyllis Carney, 76, is one of the 60 to 70 seniors in the Bucksport area receiving meals at her doorstep.
“It’s depressing at times,” she said. “I do have a friend that I go visit and we play cards. She sits on one side of the table and I sit on the other side.” Carney leaves her home “only for what’s required,” such as a quick trip to the post office or to pick up a few groceries — and shooting glares at unmasked shoppers, she said.
“[Seniors] are trying to carry on their daily lives, and they’re lonely,” said Jo Cooper, executive director of Friends in Action, a nonprofit organization that provides services to Ellsworth area seniors mainly through a network of volunteers.
The Ellsworth Senior Center has been closed since August, when the space it occupied at the Moore Community Center was converted to child-care use as a result of the switch to partial remote schooling. Like the Bucksport Senior Center, Friends in Action is delivering meals to area seniors once a week.
“The pandemic has heightened our awareness of a lot of situations, and social isolation is one,” Cooper said. “I spoke to someone in Ellsworth who lived alone [and] she said she never sees anyone. All she does is talk to her cat.”
Some seniors don’t mind spending chunks of time alone, like Carpenter, who reads, does crossword puzzles and watches “a lot” of television. “Life hasn’t changed a lot for me. I like to be alone. But I like to mingle with people, too.”
Jane Hutchins likes to mingle, too. A Lamoine resident, she used to attend the Ellsworth Senior Center with her husband, who died eight years ago, and volunteered in the kitchen.
“He’d have coffee and then I’d take him to dialysis and then come back,” she said. “I don’t go for coffee. I don’t go out for lunch anymore. It’s no fun, you have to be so careful.”
Her days are broken up by a drive to a family home in Franklin.
“I take a ride over there in the afternoon and enjoy the view,” Hutchins said. “And late in the day, I go and let my daughter’s dog out. The dog and I are pretty good pals right now.”
With Thanksgiving this week and the holiday season looming, these seniors are both making and forgoing plans. Some will share a meal with family, others will stay home.
“It’s a hard decision to make,” Peacock said. “But if you’re listening to the news and what’s happening, you have to pay heed. You have to be super, super careful at our age.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the number of times meals are being delivered by the Bucksport Senior Center.