Bill June 2018 Kenosha News.jpg

Bill Hetland

After tendon surgery on both knees following a freak accident in fall 2015, I spent four months learning to walk again in a Kenosha rehabilitation facility and nursing home.

I had excellent physical therapists and appreciated the caring medical staff. I got to know several of the residents, some of whom had few visitors.

One elderly man, in particular, had a big impact on me. He didn’t see many family member because they lived far away. He told me a son, who lived across the border in Lake County, Ill., hated him and did not want to be part of his life. I enjoyed listening to the 70-something gent tell stories about his childhood, but I also felt sorry for him because he was so lonely.

As the nation’s elderly population continues to grow at a rapid rate, we need to do more to let our senior citizens know we do care about them, that we don’t want them to be alone. There are elderly and disabled individuals in your community who would love to hear from you.

Although you might be caught up in a whirlwind of activity at home and at work, it’s likely you can afford to spend an hour or so every week reaching out to people who feel alone and isolated. They’ll appreciate your kindness, and you’ll likely learn some life lessons from them.

I’m especially concerned about the mental state of our elderly residents because a study by Kaiser Health News and PBS NewsHour finds that older Americans are quietly killing themselves in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and adult care homes.

The recently released study notes in a nation where suicide continues to climb, claiming more than 47,000 lives in 2017, such deaths among older adults — including the 2.2 million who live in long-term care settings — are often overlooked.

“Helping people stay connected is about the most important thing each of us can do to make someone’s life better,” says Carolyn Feldt, manager of elder and disability services at the Kenosha County Aging and Disability Resource Center.

“Losing the ability to move about outside one’s home too often brings loneliness and depression in addition to the limitations of a chronic illness. Phone calls, visits, and social media are all ways to help people stay connected.”

Churches throughout Kenosha County do a lot to reach out to home-bound members, to let them know they are loved and not forgotten. Human service organizations like Kenosha Area Family and Aging Services, Inc. offer a variety of services for the elderly and disabled, including a friendly visitor program, Meals on Wheels and providing transportation for medical appointments.

I recently asked friends to share their thoughts on growing old in America. Marianna Riker, a friend from Pleasant Prairie, says, “ It’s all well and good for people to say that you still have a reason to be here, but at the end of the day when so many older people live in poverty, live with chronic pain and cannot even be hired for a simple part-time job to help with the burden of health care costs ... I completely understand getting tired of it all. This is a youth-worshiping society that devalues age.”

Mike Trueblood, a former colleague from my newspaper days, says, “ I used to mow a lawn for a guy in his late 90s who liked for me to sit and talk with him each week when I was finished. He was in good health and drove himself everywhere, but he talked all the time about how everyone he knew and loved in his life had passed away and he felt so lonely.”

There are a variety of things we can do to improve the quality of life of our elderly residents. They include: making phone calls, sharing humor and good stories when you visit them, surprising them with a meal and bringing magazines and books to read.

I’m big on sending cards and letters to senior citizens. At a time when our mailboxes are filled with bills and advertising circulars, it’s a real treat when a personal letter or a card with a nice note shows up. I, for one, am thrilled when I pull out a personal letter from a stack of mail.

If you have time to help a senior citizen, be specific about what you can do. For example, say, “Let me help you with a chore around the house or in your yard. I have an hour, and I’d be happy to help.”

My life partner of 30 years, a Marine vet for who has been a paraplegic since a February 2001 auto accident, and I have great respect for friends, family members and people who we don’t even know because they have helped both of us in many ways. I’m almost 75 and my life partner is 64. We’re fortunate because we’re seldom lonely.

Bill Hetland lives in Kenosha, and is DUI Court liaison in the Lake County (Ill.) Courthouse for Nicasa Behavioral Health Services.