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Long Island senior citizens turn to solitary pursuits to cope with social distancing

Barbara McFadden, of West Hempstead, on March 15, talked about how the coronavirus is affecting her day-to-day life. Last Sunday, she streamed the service from her church in Jamaica, Queens — the church she’s attended for 25 years — on her home computer. Credit: Howard Simmons

Newsday is opening this story to all readers as we provide Long Islanders with news and information you can use during the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates

“For older people, being locked up — or feeling like they are — is apt to make them go loony tunes,” says Laura Lustbader, 70, a grant-writing consultant who lives with her wife, Mary Watros, an environmental educator, in Huntington Station. “Giving in to doom and gloom can get you down.”

So how to cope when you’re cooped up? It’s a question everybody is asking amid the coronavirus crisis. That includes people who are 60 and older, an age range that increases their odds of contracting COVID-19 and getting seriously sick. Such preexisting conditions as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease may exacerbate things further.

Health experts have recommended that high-risk individuals stay home as much as possible to lower the odds of COVID-19 infection. Resilient Long Islanders tell how they’re carrying on by streaming, strolling and keeping the faith.

“One day last week, I felt myself getting anxious,” Lustbader says. “My chest was so tight. When you’re feeling stressed a deep breath helps you locate where uncomfortable things are in your body. Within a couple of minutes you can feel the tension go away.

“I also got up and took a 20-minute walk. It was really helpful," she says. "I felt the anxiety fade away.”

In addition to ambling around her neighborhood “to see what the trees are up to,” Lustbader has found that a virtual walk down memory lane to be surprisingly productive. “I’ve been fooling around on Ancestry.com,” she says. “It’s a great way to spend a couple of hours. I actually discovered a Dutch great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side. Her husband’s name was Absalom Conover. That was unexpected.”

Added hours of relative isolation at home offer opportunities “to do things that you’d never otherwise do.” On her to-do list: A relaxing pedal at Jones Beach on her bicycle. “There’s a bike lane that is completely flat,” Lustbader says. “It’s such a nice ride.” And social distancing is built in.

Feeding the spirit

Barbara McFadden, 73, a former registered nurse and nursing-home administrator who lives in West Hempstead, is keenly aware of the importance of frequent hand-washing and other preventive measures as COVID-19 unfolds.

“I’m just beginning to distance myself,” says McFadden, who is president of the Long Island chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Besides checking off the 60-plus age box, she has hypertension and cardiac arrhythmia in her health profile.

As such McFadden is texting family and friends more than usual instead of meeting face to face. Meetings and conferences have been canceled with hopes of rescheduling. She plans to spend time organizing her taxes and working in her garden. And she doesn’t need to leave her living room to feed her spirit.

Last Sunday she streamed the service from Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York in Jamaica, Queens — the church she’s attended for 25 years — on her home computer. Gatherings are not open to the public at the church until further notice due to the coronavirus. Digital access has been in place there for several years. McFadden streamed while mending after a knee replacement a few years back.

“No matter where you are … whether you have a suit on or your PJs on … whether you’re standing up or still laying in the bed … I encourage you to bless the Lord,” said an assistant pastor at the start of the service.

“Going to church is such a part of my Sundays,” says McFadden, who came away from the cyber sermon fulfilled and focused on an enduring truth in our sudden era of social distancing. “We still must be socially compassionate,” she says.

And be good to ourselves, too. Eugene Bloom, 85, who lives with his wife, Rosalie, in East Hills, is president of the Sid Jacobson JCC men’s club. He is going to Tappen Beach in Glenwood Landing in the wake of the cancellations of regularly scheduled talks and meetings.

“I walk about a mile — just for some fresh air and a little exercise. I go about four days a week. If you sit in the house too much you’re bound to get depressed. Walking is the best exercise. It’s something you can do by yourself.”

A quartermaster of Jewish War Veterans Gieir-Levitt Post 655 in Old Bethpage, Bloom made a living as a tavern owner, work that’s all about bringing people together. The coronavirus crisis is a complete 180-degree turn.

“Still,” he says, “I’m trying to self-isolate. I’m trying to be real cautious. I have no symptoms and feel good. We wash our hands a lot.”

That’s recommended for everyone now, according to Dr. Alan Bulbin, head of infectious diseases at St. Francis Hospital in Flower Hill. “Coronavirus is ramping up and starting to show itself in our community,” he says.

His advice for seniors: Avoid crowds, practice social distancing, follow cough etiquette and wash your hands or sanitize them frequently. “Right now people need to be more rigorous and conscious of these precautions. You’re better off staying home.”

Turning to telephone, digital games

Barbara Goldstein, 76, who lives with her husband, Gerald, in a 62-and-up senior development in Melville, is confronting that reality. A die-hard mah-jongg player, she and her fellow players had recently been meeting — and sanitizing tiles, racks, tables and their hands before a friendly game in the residence’s clubhouse.

But clubhouse activities are canceled until further notice because of the coronavirus. “Things can change in a minute,” she says. “It’s like someone unplugging a hole in the dike.” That includes activities and meetings that have been axed with the Meadowbrook Women’s Initiative, a service organization that’s a big part of her life.

Goldstein is striving to take the changes in stride. She’s an avid reader in a couple of book clubs. If members can’t meet, she’ll get on the phone and discuss the latest reads with her best friend of 50 years. The ending of “The Silent Patient” is something she’s eager to discuss with fellow bookworms. And she’s got her tablet to stream movies and digitally connect with others to play backgammon and Words with Friends.

“We’re trying to live our lives but be more vigilant,” she says, adding that Gerald has heart disease and diabetes. The uncertainty of how long it will take for the crisis to resolve and the impact on relationships is a challenge. “My husband and I have been married 55 years,” she says.

Irene Lin, who lives in Greenvale and “is north of 70” in terms of her age, like her husband, Robert, who is in his 80s, was an anesthesiologist. COVID-19 has put just-for-fun game nights and meaningful family gatherings on hold until, well, who knows.

That includes a monthly trivia game she hosts in a local restaurant that could draw up to 30 people. Lin says she’s using time at home “to do a lot of reading and search for great questions for the game.” She’s also refining her efforts “to use her computer to create art. I’m at the stage where I am the only one who appreciates it.”

On a more serious note, she has suspended get-togethers for family members in the metropolitan area, including an annual spring ritual, Ching Ming, a special Chinese day for remembering ancestors. The tradition, she says, includes sprucing up grave sites and burning imitation paper money. “It symbolizes,” she says, “sending largesse to ancestors to help them in the afterlife.”

But now real life — and its hard realities — are Lin’s focus. “I’m Chinese,” she says. “This disease broke out in China. I was sure there would be xenophobia and that we’d be blamed and targeted. That has been true for some, but I haven’t experienced it. I’ve learned that people are kind and compassionate.”

That matters more than ever now. “That kindness,” Lin says, “is so encouraging.”

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