Growing number of seniors are living alone

Every weekday morning, between 7:30 and 8 a.m., regular as clockwork, the phone rings in the home of Newport News resident John Babbs. Each day, when the 95-year-old picks up, he's greeted by a cheery voice checking on his well-being. Most often they're the welcoming tones of Gloria Johnson or Wanda Sigler, both members of the Newport News Sheriff's Office.

Babbs is one of more than 45 Newport News seniors living alone who participate in the city's free Safety for Our Seniors program, which has been operating for more than a decade. "Mr. Babbs is very busy, but some, if they don't talk to us, they may not talk to anyone all day. Some of them say they look forward to Monday as they miss our voices over the weekend," said Johnson, who has been making the morning calls for more than seven years. About 20 of the recipients, the oldest of whom is 103, have been with the program since she started. "Once you've done it for a while, you get to know who the jollier ones are. Some are chattier than others," she added, as she dialed another number. It takes just 20 or 30 minutes at the start of her day to run through the calls — "Good morning sunshine. This is Gloria. You have a beautiful day. We'll talk to you tomorrow" — though she takes the time for some light banter for those who want to chat. If asked, she will also help with finding a phone number or contacting social services. If she can't reach a participant after several tries, then a sheriff's deputy goes to the home. That happens maybe three or four times a year, she said.

Seniors living alone are a growing segment of the population as people live longer and families are separated by great distances.

More and more services are being required of third parties — local government agencies and private-hire care companies — to make home a safe place to be for the area's aging population.

According to the U.S. Census, 11.3 million people, almost 30 percent of those aged 65 and older in the U.S., live alone. For women aged 85 and older, that number grows to more than half. Locally, the 2005-2009 American Community Survey revealed slightly lower numbers on the Peninsula, where one out of every four of the region's 80,715 senior residents live alone. Many of those are afflicted with Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Nationwide, the Alzheimer's Association reports that 800,000 people, one in seven of those with Alzheimer's disease, live by themselves in the community.

In Hampton Roads that translates to approximately 4,400 people, said Kristy Wyngaarden of the Southeastern Virginia chapter of the association. Of those, only about half have a caregiver who checks in on them on a regular basis.

Living alone at home puts them at increased risk of early placement in nursing homes — because of malnutrition, falls, and illness — as compared with those who have a live-in companion. "Inadequate self-care has been cited as a cause of increased need for emergency medical services among people with dementia who live alone," the Alzheimer's annual report cited. Those living solo also tend not to seek medical care in a timely manner, and they are more vulnerable to injury in fires and accidents.

Half the cases reported to Adult Protective Services typically involve self-neglect, according to Christine Jensen, director of health services research at the Center for Excellence in Aging and Geriatric Health in Williamsburg. Often older adults fail to take their prescribed medications, don't eat appropriately, and allow their homes to become cluttered and hazardous. However, Jensen's concerns are not confined to those living alone. "I worry about caregivers becoming isolated from their community. The caregiver may be consumed with managing the needs of their loved one and they may also be embarrassed about their loved one's behavior," she said. "These caregivers need contact with a support network and support groups."

Over and over again, studies show that seniors want to stay in their homes as long as possible. The medical community is working to support more home-based services, which also are less costly than institutional care. Riverside has responded with PACE, Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly, through which it currently serves 360 nursing-home eligible seniors statewide; its comprehensive support services allow them to stay in their homes. Riverside opened its first PACE facility in Hampton in 2008 and its fifth facility (and second on the Peninsula) this month in the Denbigh section of Newport News. "It's a Herculean, amazing feat that that many people are able to be kept at home with the conditions they have," said Craig Connors, Riverside vice president for PACE. The day program provides comprehensive services for those who aren't able to do some or all "activities of daily living," such as feeding, bathing, and toileting. Connors describes it as "an entire care and service package" that includes medical and nursing care, occupational therapy, transportation, home visits and activities.

For the more independent, the Peninsula Agency on Aging caters to seniors of all socioeconomic levels by federal mandate. It provides a range of services, including Meals on Wheels, transportation, home care, and group dining, to seniors throughout the region, from York to James City County. The average age of its clients is 79, according to William "Bill" Massey, CEO of the agency, and more than half of them live alone.

There is a fine line between allowing someone to maintain their independence at home and monitoring their safety and well-being," said Jensen of the Williamsburg center. She spells out a number of services that are available in the home, such as home-health aides, but notes that the challenge can be in getting residents to accept them and allow someone into the home.

For those receiving daily phone calls from the women in the Civil Enforcement Division of the Newport News Sheriff's Office, that's not an issue. "I find it very refreshing to get these pleasant calls in the early morning and start my day out with such a friendly group," said Babbs. And just recently, he had his assistant, Veronica Dougherty, drive him to the office to express his appreciation in person. "We've had a few come by to visit," said Sigler. "You form a bond. They're like family."

 Want to sign up?

Newport News seniors can call 757-926-8585 for an application for the Safety for our Seniors program. Staff from the Sheriff's Office call every weekday morning to check on participants if there's no answer after several tries, then a sheriff's deputy checks the home. Many localities have similar programs; check with your local Sheriff's Office.