RICHMOND, Va. -- Carolyn Lussenhop said she was grateful to Jim Meharg, her life partner of 20 years.
She first met Meharg while working with a Northern Virginia retirement community where Meharg was the director.
The friendship eventually blossomed into a romance and the couple made Richmond their home.
Now retired and living together in an assisted living facility, Lussenhop said the two have shared many fond memories over the past two decades.
“We’ve done very well together,” Lussenhop said. “I have to help him with things and he has to help me with things, so I’d be lost without him.”
The couple called the Chestnut Grove Assisted Living Facility in Henrico County an ideal home since Lussenhop uses a wheelchair most of the day.
They say they’ve also developed friendships with other residents.
“It’s kind of like going to a small school,” Meharg laughed. “You get to know everybody.”
The couple said things in their beloved retirement community were starting to feel normal again with the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
“Now we’re all back together again, we just chit-chat with each other all the time,” Lussenhop said.
Like many senior citizens, the pandemic has taken an emotional and physical toll on the couple.
Both Lussenhop and Maharg said they felt fortunate they had each other to counter the loneliness of isolation.
"Until the pandemic, we were able to do all kinds of things, they just have a beautiful program (at Chestnut Grove) all around," Meharg said. “But then the pandemic came, and people couldn’t come in.”
“His daughters were very stressed out, they got more stressed than we did because they couldn’t come in and even touch him,” Lussenhop added.
With the senior population most vulnerable to death or developing severe illness from COVID-19, physical distancing was critical. However, isolation over the past year has resulted in more cases of loneliness and anxiety among senior citizens, even increased risk of premature death, dementia, or stroke.
Chelsea Cassidy, Director of Social Services for At Home Care Hospice, called human contact and socialization crucial to the physical and mental health of senior citizens.
“It’s essential,” Cassidy said. “That caring touch, that extension of a hand, maybe helping someone down the hallways or fully embracing them. I think we’ve all been hungry for a hug.”
Cassidy emphasized the importance of seniors being able to reconnect with friends and family, but in ways that were safe.
“I would really encourage people to realize, not only what makes you feel comfortable but who do you feel comfortable with? Maybe starting in your neighborhood, try walking if they are able to walk. If they are homebound, take advantage of Telehealth opportunities that are out there for mental health counseling,” Cassidy said.
For seniors living alone or with relatives, Cassidy said attending an adult daycare center or a senior program offered through a church or community center, was good for socialization. She sais volunteer opportunities, even for homebound seniors, were also positive ways for seniors to reconnect.
"We’ve had a wonderful volunteer from our church who makes memorial bears for us, and she’s used this time to use her gift to give back to people,” Cassidy said.
While Lussenhop and Meharg said there has been plenty of challenges, they’re grateful to still have each other and the support of a caring staff.
“We’ve had supportive service, beautiful people that care for us. We just can’t say enough about what they do,” Meharg said.
“Every day, I would read all the newspaper stuff and I would just think about all the people who didn’t make it through the day,” Lussenhop said.
Both said gratitude and perspective have kept them looking toward the future with optimism.
In fact, several studies have shown that counter to expectation, older adults as a group were more resilient to the anxiety, depression, and stress-related mental health disorders characteristic of younger populations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had to go off to WWII when we were teenagers,” Meharg said. “Afterwards, I think you appreciated that you had to face something that was a little more challenging and difficult.”
Here are some other resources for senior citizens and their families.
Senior Connections Listening Line
Senior Center of Greater Richmond
This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.