Tennessee launches hotline for older adults feeling isolated or in need of services during COVID-19 pandemic

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Evelyn Hodlom, a resident of Brookdale Assisted Living meets Pesto, a two month old Husky Mix, from a window in her room during a Dog Parade put on by the Chattanooga HES for residents of Brookdale Assisted Living on Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Hixson, Tenn.

Tennessee state agencies are working to provide support for elderly people who may feel isolated during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The "TN Hope Line" is a partnership among the Governor's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the Tennessee Commission on Aging and Disability and the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board to launch a free hotline available at 844-600-8262.

It is available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. EST and involves volunteers trained in active listening.

Bevelle Puffer, who leads special projects for the office, said the program is built off a similar hotline in North Carolina and looks to fill the need of increasing feelings of isolation among older adults.

"There was just this real need to try and reach out," she said. "There were not as many activities, not just in nursing homes but in all kinds of congregate housing or public housing, where people gather for meals and stuff. All that had stopped. People just weren't seeing people at all."

Elderly residents, and those with underlying health conditions, are at increased risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19, which led many long-term-care facilities to close down visitation. When the pandemic began, older adults were especially encouraged to stay in their homes to reduce their risk.

The shutdown brought many negative emotional consequences for the elderly, such as increased loneliness, depression, isolation and cognitive decline. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in August found one in four adults aged 65 or older reported feeling anxiety or depression since the pandemic began, a rate more than double what the same population reported in 2018.

As of Wednesday, 223 of the 269 total COVID-19 deaths in Hamilton County, or 83%, were residents aged 61 or older.

The Baptist Mission Board is providing volunteers for the call center, Puffer said. The volunteers will listen to callers and can help connect them with local resources, such as food programs or mental health care.

"We're also trying to be real aware that people are going to have some really serious needs," Puffer said.

The Southeast Tennessee Area Agency on Aging and Disability, which serves Bledsoe, Bradley, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Polk, Rhea and Sequatchie counties, is also working to teach tech skills to older adults. This will allow them to video chat with loved ones or order groceries online, for example, agency director Criss Grant said in early December.

"Our services are designed to help those individuals remain in their homes as much as possible," Grant said. "Of course, the risk of social isolation occurs because they're not getting out, so we're also working on ways to help reduce that. We have some plans we're starting to implement to help older adults understand technology that they maybe haven't used in the past. Or, if they have used it, maybe improve their skills."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.