Forgotten seniors need time, care

They are the heroes that led the charge at the Battle of Guadalcanal, who championed the civil rights movement, who stayed home and raised their families. They baked our favorite cookies, patched up our scrapes and kissed our bruises when we fell. They are our parents, grandparents, dear relatives and friends who have imparted their wisdom, candor and values to us so that we could build our own lives and families.

Where are they now? While we’d like to think they’re enjoying their “golden years,” thousands of them are living alone in nursing homes and long-term care facilities right in our own neighborhoods.

A staggering number of them — even those with family — spend weekends, birthdays and even holidays by themselves, alone in their memories. I call them a “forgotten population.” For most of us who are in good health, going about our busy lives, we don’t often think about aging, but consider the following:

● Georgia has the ninth fastest growing 60-plus population and the 18th fastest growing 85-plus population in the United States.

● According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 50 percent of nursing home residents have no close relatives, and 46 percent have no living children.

● An estimated 60 percent of nursing home residents never have visitors.

Laurie, is one of the forgotten. Not long ago, on Christmas day, a group of volunteers from Second Wind Dreams, an Atlanta-based nonprofit, was delivering gifts to some of the elderly in her nursing home. One of the children in the volunteer group noticed that Laurie was walking up and down the hall attired in an evening gown.

She was so dressed up, in fact, that the girl thought she must be on her way to a black-tie event and remarked to Laurie how beautiful she looked. Laurie simply said: “You know hon, I heard I was going to get a visitor today, so I wanted to look nice.” It turned out that Laurie was one of the people the volunteers had on their list to visit.

Her story is the story of millions of our elderly living among us in elder care communities throughout Atlanta, across our state, and throughout the country.

Sadly, many in this population rarely leave the nursing home premises. Medical challenges, disability and the death of close friends and loved ones take a gradual toll on their mental and emotional health and well being. Limited social contact only exacerbates the problem. It’s no wonder that depression among the elderly is rampant.

While the fastest growing demographic in our country is the elderly, organizations that support seniors often receive the least support. I believe this is partly because people focus on the perceived health cost burden of the elderly instead of the tremendous value they can bring to all generations.

Working for a health and wellness company, I see up close the health challenges in this population. While health care and costs are issues that all of us will be addressing for years to come, there are things that all of us can do now.

This population also has simple, more basic needs, which if fulfilled, often eliminate the bigger needs. A happy, satisfied person is a healthier person. Studies show people who live longer and healthier lives have strong support systems that keep them motivated.

Our contributions don’t have to be big or costly. You’d be amazed at what a simple deck of cards with images large enough to read can mean to a senior who has played games his or her whole life.

While we can’t all afford a monetary donation, we can give the gift of time. Look for ways to volunteer. A simple visit any time of year to walk, talk or share a meal with a resident helps lonely spirits soar.

Our seniors have given us much and can still teach us many things. Treasure them and what they have achieved and how far they have come in life. And most important, reach out to them and show them that we still care and that we have not forgotten.

Tom Underwood is CEO of Alere Health, the Atlanta-based health management services business of Alere Inc. Alere Health is the presenting corporate sponsor of the Alere-Second Wind Dreams annual Golf Classic on Oct. 18.