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Helping senior citizens fight the loneliness epidemic

Local senior centers are working hard to fight a nationwide epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

At the Cicero Senior Center,dozens of people gathered on a recent Friday to have lunch and play Bingo.

One of them was 79-year-old Claire Cary.

"All of my scheduling, doctors and everything, is around the senior center,” she said. “It comes first on my calendar."

Cary said she started coming to the center 16 years ago with her husband. Then, five years ago, he passed away.

"When he was gone, it was a major transition, and I would not have made it had I not had the senior center,” Cary said. “I came to the senior center three days after he passed away, and some people said, 'Why are you here?' and I said 'Why would I not be here?"

Cary is not alone in her quest to find social interaction. The National Council on Agingsaid a study of adults between the ages of 60 and 101 shows up to half of them feel isolated. It also estimates about 20 million older adults suffer from feelings of loneliness.

That can lead to physical problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, and cognitive decline.

Cicero Senior Center Program Coordinator Alex Ryan said centers like hers are fighting back against the trend, offering activities including card games, day trips, and yoga classes.

"Even if you're physically exercising, you're here socializing, and it all fits together of just overall well-being,” Ryan said.

Ryan said more than 100 seniors come to the center each week, and within the past month, new registrations are skyrocketing. She said seniors are becoming more comfortable going out in the wake of the pandemic, like Bill Merritt, 89, whose wife passed away last year. He said he enjoys not having to eat meals alone.

"Oh it's very nice obviously,” he said. “I have had five COVID shots."

Former chef Val Ours, 74, said the center’s meals are a good opportunity to get out of the house with her husband, who has a disability.

"Now, it's like a real treat to actually come and have someone else do the cooking,” she said. “And then I can be around other people."

For seniors fighting feelings of isolation, Cary recommends finding a local center and bringing a friend or relative the first time.

"There's so many that are alone, single men and women, so you try to reach out and be as friendly as you can to make them not feel alone," she said.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.