North Memphis

For senior citizens, the virus isn't the only pandemic danger. Isolation can be deadly.

“I miss my friends,” said Derotha Payne-Obie.

She's one of many Memphis senior citizens unable to attend programs at senior centers due to the pandemic. 

“I went almost everyday before this coronavirus hit,” said Payne-Obie of the day program at Lewis Senior Center. “I was usually there by nine in the morning.”

Memphis had its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 8. On March 11, closings and cancellations began, followed by Governor Bill Lee’s shelter in place mandate on April 2.

Senior centers help older adults maintain their independence and health. They often provide meals, fitness, wellness checks, transportation, counseling, socialization, and recreation.

According to the National Council on Aging, these centers can help seniors manage or delay the onset of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. A sizable number of peer-reviewed studies have shown that staying active and socially engaged with family, friends, and organized activities can combat depression and dementia and reduce risk of suicide.

Payne-Obie was part of the Lewis Center's Red Hatters Club, which is a social organization for women 50 years and older. She took guitar and piano lessons, attended a jewelry making class, and sang in the choir and jug band. 

“We ate lunch around 12:30, and I wouldn’t leave there until 4:30,” Payne-Obie said, “We would end up on the parking lot sitting underneath the trees and socializing for hours.”

“Baby, we had fun,” said Rose Oliver of the Oasis of Hope Senior Program. “I would crochet, while my friends did word puzzles and colored.”

Oliver's program is located at the Bickford Community Center in the Bickford-Bearwater area of North Memphis and northern Uptown. She said the center offered T'ai Chi, card games, line dancing, aqua exercises, and Wii bowling tournaments.

“And our line dance group took home the trophy from the Agricenter, where we competed with other centers,” said Oliver. “Orange Mound Center thought they had us and they were looking good, but they couldn’t touch Bickford, baby.”

Payne-Obie said she doesn’t think things will ever go back to the way they were. 

Oliver remains hopeful. She said she will return to her center as soon as she's able.

“I talk to many of the seniors weekly and they are lonely and missing their friends,” said Shirley Glenn, who is director of the Oasis of Hope Senior Center.

She admits it isn’t easy for her either. She misses them too.
Derotha Payne-Obie displays a mounted and framed puzzle she completed at her home. Prior to the pandemic, she keep busy at the Lewis Senior Center's day program. It's been closed since March by local and state mandates. (Tamara Cunningham)


Since COVID-19 shut down the Bickford program, Oliver's been at home.

“I read a lot,” said Oliver. “My children and grandchildren come over and we may barbecue. They live close and my grandchildren ride their bikes over here.”

Oliver, a breast cancer survivor, said the only place she goes is to the grocery store.

Payne-Obie said she finds things to keep herself busy like puzzles, coloring, and watching tv.

Glenn said she's not sure when the Oasis of Hope program will return to the building but it won't be this year.

To help combat negative mental health effects, Glenn said they're offering virtual exercise to those who have internet access. She noted that many do not.

“We also offer the seniors adult coloring books and puzzles [to take home],” said Glenn. “MIFA comes on Monday and provides meals for the week for those seniors who drove to the center, and they deliver to 12 seniors who relied on us for transportation."

Dorothy Johnson and Frank Robinson pose for a photo at Bickford Community Center on a MIFA food relief box pickup day. The Oasis of Hope senior program, housed in the center, closed in March when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit Memphis. Boxes of food can be seen stacked inside the build to the left. (Tamara Cunningham)

Growing Need, Fewer Options

Social isolation can wreak havoc on bodies and brains and the elderly are especially vulnerable.

Work by aging and mental health experts shows the coronavirus pandemic is increasing the rate of depressive disorders and PTSD in elderly Americans. An overload of information about COVID-19 can be counter-productive and increase health anxiety, apprehension, and fear. People 65 and older already represented one in five U.S suicides prior to the pandemic.

Isolation also increases risk of cardiovascular issue, autoimmune conditions, and cognitive decline.

Research warns that the impacts of social distancing will be worse for those who rely on senior centers and other out-of-home activities in the absence of close friends and family.

The National Council on Aging, Science Daily, and AARP all agree that exercise, mental stimulation, and eating regular meals will cut down on the side effects of pandemic isolation. But seniors who live alone and don't have family support are likely to struggle to find those things safely in the pandemic.
[Author Tamara Cunningham is a graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program, which trains everyday Memphians from underserved communities in the basics of community-based reporting. This is her first story for High Ground News.]
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Read more articles by Tamara Cunningham.

Tamara Cunningham a degree in communications from the University of Memphis. Cunningham is a resident of North Memphis and a graduate of the second High Ground News Community Correspondents program.