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Aging Series: Three Albany Seniors Navigate Through Pandemic Times

Bradley Mohr during a summer fishing trip in the Adirondacks.
Bradley Mohr
Bradley Mohr during a summer fishing trip in the Adirondacks.

This year has been difficult for everyone. While COVID-19 may have forced people to spend more time apart from family and friends, three active seniors living in the city of Albany have found ways to cope with social isolation.

Bradley Mohr was living a very active life before the pandemic hit, keeping fit and healthy, working out at Albany’s Whitehall Road JCC every day.

Credit NNORC
Map of Albany's NNORC (click on picture to enlarge)

"I used to go to music festivals, and concerts. I haven't done any of that in quite a while now. And also, I would go to some activities with our local Nnorc, the NNORC, which stands for Neighborhood Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, which encompasses the area where I live. They would have different activities, some at Jewish Community Center, some at St. Sofia's Greek Orthodox Church nearby and a couple other locations. So we would attend a number of those. They also did have breakfast, breakfast exercise classes, lectures on various topics. We still attend some, but they'd be online."

Mohr's activities came to an abrupt halt in March. The 73-year-old also had to cancel his favorite pasttime.

" I had an annual trip I would do up to northern Maine, to go fly fishing in the spring, and then in the fall, I have been going to Gunnison, Colorado, also to go fishing and we haven't, haven't been able to keep up with that, in the last year, had to cancel all those trips."

With family far away in Georgia and Tennessee, Mohr and his wife stayed engaged with their pet dogs and exercise DVDs.

"Like a lot of people, we started to put on some weight in the beginning of the pandemic. It was a real feeling of paralysis in the beginning. And a real fear of the unknown. We did a lot more comfort eating. My doctor kind of got me into a pre-diabetic diet program. So I actually ended up losing quite a bit of weight. So physically, I'm probably healthier now than before."

Mohr says they rarely go to the supermarket, opting to have groceries delivered. He says the couple's ability to get away in their RV allows them to go camping and stay busy. The retired New York State Workers’ Compensation Board attorney says he's also been learning to play guitar and is more active now than he was in his 40's.

Maria Sunukjian lives in Albany's Delaware Avenue neighborhood. Still working at age 70, the licensed clinical social worker enjoys interacting with others, and like everyone else, has had to quickly catch up with video technology while dealing with the distress of physical distance and lack of human contact.

"To see people over the internet, versus seeing people face to face. That's been a big, big change."~ Maria Sunukjian

"But the part that's really changed since COVID is not being able to see people face to face for work. I now do telemedicine, I see people over the internet. And I don't interact with people face to face at all anymore. And that has resulted in a tremendous amount of isolation. And it is clearly not the same for me. To see people over the internet, versus seeing people face to face. That's been a big, big change."

Sunukjian says for people to be able to age successfully, especially now, they should challenge their minds, to continue to learn, to continue to solve problems.

At 76, Jeffrey Marks, who also lives in Albany's NNORC, has kept mind and body active, despite battling macular degeneration for the past 12 years.

"But I had friends and I was I'm a very active person, before the virus, I was a biker hiker and walker around the tri-cities, but then the virus came. And it became even more difficult to get together with people. For example, the friends who would be taking me out, they were very concerned, so I wasn't going out anymore."

Dr. Kevin Costello is a Geriatric Medicine Specialist at Albany Medical College. He says a lot of the community activities that kept seniors bus, are currently either virtual or closed down entirely. And outings that they might have taken in the past to play Bingo, get groceries and go shopping have suddenly become a much more frightening prospect.

“The key is, I think, staying socially engaged, using the same workarounds that a lot of us are using now with the electronic meeting and that sort of thing. Elderly people have reputation for being not technically savvy, but a lot of elders in the community have adapted to who have the resources, at least in access to internet has have adapted to virtual meetings with family and with social groups, but that's probably the minority, I suspect in the in the population in that age group. Put a lot for a lot of elders, I think access to that technology may be limited.”

Marks has been adhering to a daily routine, an orderly set of events to get him through each day. He says in spending almost all of his time at home, he has come to embrace technology.

"It seemed right away back in March, that the masks were going to be worn, nothing was going to go away, and we're going to be plagued with the virus for the rest of our lives. Vaccinations will help. But our entire existence, whether you're old or young, is going to end up being of a new normal for everybody in so many different ways. And one of the simple ways of seeing that is that popular internet software called Zoom, it really brings a lot of people together at once. It makes it easy. And that's something that I don't think most people really think about. But it's allowing a lot of people to manipulate time and space in ways they've never even thought of before, and in terms of getting people together, I think there's going to be a lot more Zoom visits than home visits. “

Sunukjian says she still goes out for gas and groceries, but not much else. She has a vulnerable family member and keeps face to face contacts at a minimum.

She longs for the day when the masks come off.

"I am looking to the end of the pandemic, so that I can see people face to face . You know, when they done research on communication, the research concludes that the largest percentage of human communication is body language facial expression. So, that is the, the best way for us humans to interact with each other. And I am really looking forward to be able to do that again, freely, and not being scared I might, you know, give the virus or pick up the virus. I'm really looking forward to that. And I'm looking forward to being able to socialize with friends and family in public places like restaurants. I really miss that."

Dr. Costello says the psychological effects of the pandemic, including increased loneliness, can dramatically affect seniors.

“The prevalence of depression in the elderly is similar to the rest of the general population, but the effects can be more dramatic in terms of impacts on health. And, and the effect it has on comorbid conditions. So other underlying health conditions they have, depression, can have a very negative impact on the outcomes of those conditions. So, for example, you may have a deterioration in control of diabetes. Further impairment is already impaired sleep, increased risk of falling risk of substance abuse and things like that. And we also see a second peak of suicide in old age as well. And so that's certainly a concern when there's increased social isolation, and decreased access to care.”

A vaccine is on its way, but older people must first stay safe through what public health officials have warned will be a dark winter. Mohr believes a COVID vaccine will slowly return life back to where it was...

" I think things will normalize a bit, come in the summer, but it may be, it may be a year or more before things are closer to what they were, but they may not ever be for quite, quite some time. There's a lot of unknowns here in the world."

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.
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