As the Island began to partially reopen this July, and summer residents and tourists booked trips, many Island seniors silently chose to stay home. For them, safety and comfort could only be found at home, while the rest of the Island has dipped back into a slight sense of normalcy. Seniors are among the most vulnerable population on-Island, and thus many have taken extra precautions over the pandemic.
Island elderly services, including the Edgartown Council on Aging (Anchors), have come to aid senior Islanders during this time. Their regularly scheduled programming gave way to Zoom events, meal delivery, and individualized activities.
“A lot of our seniors are nervous,” said Victoria Haeselbarth, outreach worker at the Anchors. “They want to be out there, but they realize they might feel like they are putting their life at risk to do so.”
The Anchors has accommodated its programming to a virtual format. It offers workshops, COVID-19 resources, exercise classes, and group activities and programs to engage with the community. The Edgartown Council on Aging reported that almost 50 percent of those they serve are using Zoom on a regular basis.
“Many people I speak with are re-engaging in lifelong creative pursuits, finishing memoirs, paintings, and starting up the bucket list items they’ve long put off,” Edgartown Council on Aging director of senior services Meris Keating said.
The Anchors have a dedicated group of volunteers who deliver meals, run errands, and go on pharmacy runs so seniors do not have to leave their homes. They have evolved since the beginning of the pandemic to provide a full list of services to make Island seniors feel safe.
Janice Belisle is a longtime Edgartown senior resident who has been living on her own while staying home. She keeps herself busy by reading, going online, watching TV, scrapbooking, and talking with friends.
“I have not been bored one day,” Belisle said. “I have all these little projects I am working on. I am one of those people who can find something to do every minute.”
On Chappaquiddick, senior Shirley Dewing has found comfort in crafting. She and her husband haven’t left their home very often the past couple of months. She takes the first Chappy Ferry to Edgartown every Sunday morning to buy groceries at Stop and Shop and to grab the newspaper.
“I try and stay in touch with other confined people,” Dewing said. “It’s peaceful and quiet over here.”
Belisle and Dewing have both been proactive with connecting with family and friends over Zoom and on the phone. “It has been a gift to renew old acquaintances,” Belisle said. “You knew that when you called someone, they would be home.”
Yet the online conversations cannot make up for the busy summers the two women usually enjoy. “Our lives have changed,” Dewing said. “Our family have not visited this year because they don’t want to spread the virus.”
Belisle also had to tell her usual summer company not to visit this year, making her home quieter. During the beginning of the pandemic, her husband’s cousin made and delivered a home-cooked dinner every single night. Although it was socially distant through the door, Belisle was able to have some kind of human interaction while staying safe.
As the state and the Island began to open up and relax regulations, seniors are still hesitant to physically re-engage. With the influx in summer residents and tourists, many seniors do not feel safe walking around their community.
Dewing does not feel comfortable to be out and about yet, especially in the summer months.
“The thing that scares me is that people walk around without masks,” Dewing said. “They think it’s a hoax or they think they are invincible, but we are dealing with something we don’t know how to protect ourselves from. It’s time to get serious.”
Although Massachusetts residents are required to quarantine for two weeks if they do not have a negative COVID-19 test result from 72 hours prior to their arrival, Belisle noted that many are not following these regulations.
“I think us older people are being careful when it comes to wearing our masks and doing all the things we should be doing when we go out,” Belisle said. “I think a lot of young people are spoiling that for us because they are not being careful.”
Others not obeying the state COVID-19 regulations proposes a great risk to vulnerable populations, including seniors.
Seniors have been forced to find creative, socially distant ways to see other people. Belisle has selected a small number of people for her quarantine bubble. She eats dinner with her sister and brother-in-law, and hosts a friend or neighbor on her porch.
“I really haven’t felt isolated,” Belisle said. “I was seeing at least one person every day, and talking to three or four people every day. It seemed like neighbors would find different reasons to come to my door or visit me on my back porch.”
Over on Chappy, Dewing has not felt isolated or depressed. “Things happen, and we just have to deal with it,” Dewing said.
The Edgartown Council on Aging has identified seniors who may be feeling isolated or down. They reach out to them over the phone, dropping off activities at their home, and keeping them engaged with others.
“The most common complaint is not knowing when this will all end,” Keating said. “And it’s the most difficult to answer, since none of us can. We just continue to be there for them, and connect them to the people and resources they need to get through to the better times ahead. We reach out to one person at a time and listen.”
Seniors are also taking it upon themselves to reach out to one another. Belisle has made it a point to contact friends who are struggling.
“I try to think of something to do every day,” Belisle said. “If a day goes by and I haven’t talked to anyone or seen anyone, I try to make it my point to make that phone call.”
Dewing takes the Chappy Ferry once a week to deliver Meals on Wheels to her neighbors.
As they limit their interaction with others, Anchor seniors miss life before the pandemic.
“[Seniors] miss seeing their friends, hugging one another, and being part of something bigger, Haeselbarth said. “That is the biggest complaint that I hear.”
As the future continues to look up in the air, Dewing and Belisle are taking it one day at a time. The Anchors has no plans to open in person anytime soon, especially with the large influx of tourists. Along with other Island seniors, Dewing and Belisle feel lucky to spend the pandemic on Martha’s Vineyard.
“We are survivors,” Dewing said. “We just have to balance our lives out with the way things are in the world now. We may never go back to the way we lived before; we don’t know. I am in it for the long haul.”