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    The Essential Need For Social Connection: An Interview With Geriatric Expert and “Friend Power” Creator Hope Reiner

    by agebuzz Managing Editor Connie Zuckerman


    Let’s face it: the need to quarantine these past few months has not been easy on anyone. But it’s been especially difficult for older adults, many of whom live alone or in isolated circumstances away from family and loved ones. For these seniors, being forced to socially distance may have devastating consequences for their physical and emotional health and well being.


    Long time agebuzz readers may remember my previous interview of Hope Reiner, a Certified Geriatric Care Manager and Dementia Practitioner, based in New York City, whose unique work focuses on “Friend Power” i.e., forging close and loving relationships with isolated, often cognitively or physically impaired or homebound older adults, in order to lift their spirits and improve their functioning, with the warm embrace of a close friendship. Hope’s work is, of necessity, very dependent on close physical contact with her clients. I recently checked in with Hope to find out how she, and her clients, were weathering the current pandemic and to learn what thoughts Hope has regarding the social distancing older adults are now experiencing.


    CZ: Hope, thank you for providing us with your insights during this time. First, how are you and your family doing? How has it been quarantining in New York City? As an older adult, what have you struggled with and what challenges have you faced? 


    HR: I’m doing as well as can be expected. I live alone with a very sweet and elderly cat. I’m very lucky to live close to Central Park and have had glorious walks in the park that I sometimes share with a friend or else I go by myself. My appreciation of nature has increased tenfold. I’ve enjoyed the beginning of spring with all of the flowering trees and wildflowers spread throughout the park. Now that it’s spring migration, I’ve asked “Birders” in the park to identify the various birds they’re observing. Seeing these birds fly beneath the beautiful blue sky is just a joyous experience. It’s taught me to be more aware of nature and to enjoy the opposite of what NYC is known for i.e., the noise, the hustle and bustle, the traffic.


    My challenges have revolved around not having enough socialization and cultural stimulation. I have 4 grandchildren but only one is in the city and he socially isolates a great deal with his father. I do get to see him occasionally and also FaceTime occasionally with the other grandchildren.


    CZ: As a businesswoman, has your work been affected by the pandemic? Have you connected with new clients? How have you adapted your usual work practices to continue working despite the pandemic?


    HR: Although I’m a Certified Geriatric Care Manager and a Dementia Practitioner, the focus of my work as the founder of Hope And I has been about preventing the devastating effects of social isolation on older adults by providing connection and authentic friendship to people who are missing that in their lives. Underscoring the value of connection and friendship is the scientific evidence that people’s health and longevity improve with social interaction. There is even evidence that people can grow new brain cells when they feel relevant and loved.


    Several months ago, I was asked by an elder care attorney to work with his client in my capacity as a Geriatric Care Manager and Dementia Practitioner, in order to provide necessary changes in his client’s life. The woman has a very challenging form of dementia that has a profound effect on her personality. Her needs are enormous and until this past January, when I was introduced to her, she had been on her own for many years, as her entire family lives far away. To say the least, she was in very poor shape. I felt I had no other choice but to dive in to help her. I have been able to make numerous changes in this woman’s life. She now has very caring and devoted full-time aides who cook, bathe her and make sure she and her home are clean and safe. There’s also an occupational therapist visiting her twice a week to help her gain strength, a doctor who makes house calls, a computer specialist who is available to help with her technical issues and she receives Meals on Wheels. I am with her often to keep her company, oversee everything, and help with myriad other needs. She and I have become very dear friends. Her sister said I should receive a MacArthur “genius” grant for how much I have helped! Naturally I always wear a mask and gloves and am very careful to wash my hands thoroughly before I see her and when I get back home.


    CZ: How are your other clients doing? Have you been able to see any of them in person? If not, how have you communicated with your clients and their families?


    HR: Since the quarantine started, I haven’t seen any of my other clients but I do stay in touch with them and as of now they are doing well. One of them will be 103 next month. I regularly speak to their caregivers. I also make sure that the families of my clients call their loved ones more frequently and send small presents as a way to show that they care. I speak regularly with family members which greatly alleviates worry and concern.


    CZ: Have you relied on technology to help continue a relationship with your clients? What have been the challenges of maintaining a connection and relationship with your clients during this time?


    HR: I realize that in today’s world and especially due to the pandemic, many people are using a variety of platforms and technology. I have to say that my entire philosophy of care is based on in-person, personal connection. I have seen how transformative a loving connection can be and that’s where my strengths and heart are. And I’m not alone in my concerns about the necessity of social connection. It’s gratifying to know that there is a whole new awareness of how devastating social isolation and loneliness are. In 2017 and 2018, the former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy declared an “epidemic of loneliness” and the U.K appointed a Minister of Loneliness.  


    CZ: Are there resources in the community that you have missed or that have been particularly helpful during this time?


    HR: Although there are fewer resources than before, I have been able to find many professionals that are available for telemedicine and in-person doctor visits. I can order anything that is needed online, and pharmacies are open and can deliver the same day. Of course, some of my clients’ favorite places are no longer open and so I find alternatives that are almost as pleasing.


    CZ: What has inspired you during this time? What societal and practical changes do you think need to happen as a result of what we’ve learned during this pandemic? 


    HR: I’ve been inspired by all of the caring and dedicated people who are saving lives at the expense of their own. I am inspired by professionals who are providing facts and truth that will hopefully enlighten people and by philanthropists and everyday people who are helping in innumerable ways. I hope that there will be programs and new opportunities for young people to find work in new fields that benefit all of those that have been left behind. We can no longer deny what we see every day about how people are suffering without jobs or enough food to eat. I hope these new jobs will not be at the low end of the pay scale and that people will be compensated in a far better way for the good work they are doing to help people and the planet.


    As I mentioned, I am trying to be my most optimistic self. Because more attention has been paid to economic inequality, the dismissive attitude towards the elderly, and the frightening consequences of this historic behavior, I am hopeful there might be some bold actions taken that will make a significant improvement in people’s lives. I think we’ve ignored these problems and people for far too long and the fact that we can all see this might make things better…at least we can always hope.


    For decades now I have been involved in learning, researching, and practicing how to help marginalized older adults. As a country, we have been negligent in acknowledging how rewarding it is to befriend someone who is older or not as fit or healthy or attractive. I always say you cannot judge a person by their outsides unless you know their insides.


    I’m hoping that there will be an opportunity for people to be more aware, empathetic, and compassionate as they see the devastating results of the pandemic. I’m thrilled that my path in life has led me to do the work that I do. I am a kinder, wiser, more loving person. I cherish the small interactions I have with older people when I’m out and about, who for the most part are “invisible.” To see people’s faces break into a smile when they are acknowledged is really a privilege and very heartwarming.


    CZ: Do you have any last words of wisdom to share with agebuzz readers?


    HR: I can only share what I have observed and learned over the past 30 years in my research and work and it’s that everyone matters. No one is more important or more worthwhile than any other. I just did a podcast for a division of Wells Fargo on how brokers can be more effective in their dealings with clients and my advice is to listen carefully, not interrupt, ask questions and engage with someone in a way that shows that you really care. I encourage everyone to take this approach when dealing with older adults. Once again, being noticed and listened to enables one to feel relevant and cared about. Everyone benefits from this kind of engagement and interaction. Additionally physical touch is so important now that people have been so isolated. People need that too. 


    Hope Reiner, the Founder of Hope & I, has over 30 years of experience working with older adults. She is a Certified Geriatric Care Manager, Certified Dementia Practitioner, and the author of “Friend Power” from the book Social Isolation of Older Adults: Strategies to Bolster Health and Well-Being, published by Springer Publishing Company (2018). Her approach to one-on-one work with older adults and special needs persons is reinforced by scientific research about the essential need for loving connection, stimulation, engagement, and interaction in one’s life. For further information about her work, Hope can be reached at [email protected]