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Senior Friendship Centers tackle loneliness in Southwest Florida’s pandemic

GUEST COLUMN — For older adults, loneliness and despair are side effects of COVID-19.

Carol Tapp of Sarasota lives alone and suffers from COPD, arthritis and fibromyalgia. As the pandemic raged on through the summer, Carol watched the food in her pantry slowly disappear, until she was down to scraps. She didn’t have anyone to talk to and didn’t know where to turn.

Carol’s situation is echoed by thousands of older adults in our area who are homebound, a situation that has become even more dire during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Sarasota County alone, more than 40,000 seniors, or about 23% of the population, live alone.

Fortunately, Carol contacted the Senior Friendship Centers’ Friendship at Home program and was assigned a friendly visitor who helped her with grocery shopping and provided conversation and company. This global health crisis has shone a light on an issue that Senior Friendship Centers has undertaken since we were founded in 1973 – senior loneliness is a public health epidemic.

Research published by Brigham Young University reveals that social isolation is more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In fact, loneliness is associated with significantly higher rates of heart disease and stroke and a 50% increased risk of dementia, according to a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Lonely or isolated older adults report a greater incidence of depression and anxiety and suffer a mortality rate comparable to that linked to smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol and physical inactivity.

When the coronavirus outbreak forced Senior Friendship Centers to close its doors in March, seniors in our programs were left bereft of their usual social opportunities, lectures, classes, exercise programs, and regular medical/dental care.  Fortunately, more than 100 volunteers stepped up to help with the distribution of essential supplies and food, to make reassurance calls, deliver groceries, provide telehealth, lead and participate in virtual support groups and activities, and more.

And as the world spun with closures and shutdowns, SFC mobilized – recognizing that our most vulnerable population would need our help more than ever. More than 120,000 nutritious meals have been served through our home-delivered meals program so far this year – a 454% increase over the same timeframe last year.

We are already seeing seniors’ mental health needs on the rise and are offering supportive programming. Our program outcomes consistently show participants feel stronger, more resilient, and more optimistic about their future.

The founder of Senior Friendship Centers, Brother Geenen, famously said that “isolation and loneliness are the malnutrition of the elderly.” Now, loneliness is not just a concept faced by “others.” As a result of social distancing, we’ve all experienced some form of isolation and the devastating effects that it can have on our minds, health and wellbeing.

We are all on this journey of aging, and if you’d like to be a part of the solution for seniors in Southwest Florida, visit

Erin McLeod is president & CEO of Senior Friendship Centers Inc.

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