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One call at a time: Retiree is lifeline for area seniors during pandemic

Staff Writer
Herald Democrat
Maxine Thomas

“One of the worst things for a person is feeling like they are no longer worthy or useful enough for someone to communicate with them,” said Maxine Thomas, a retired hairdresser turned senior communication specialist for Texoma Council of Governments.

Thomas just signed a new contract for TCOG’s Social Reassurance Program that pays her for ten hours of work a week.

That work takes place either on the phone or through social media as she reaches out to some of the area’s most at risk folks — seniors who are isolating due to the pandemic. These individuals often do not have family or friends who can communicate with them on a regular basis.

Thomas has some clients who only want a call to speak for a couple of minutes just so someone knows that they are still living and able to answer the phone. Others want someone who will take a deep seat and lend an ear to help them push away the loneliness that sets in when the world stops dropping in for a visit.

Some of those folks are likely to be people who used to get human interaction from programs senior centers or church groups. Even those who couldn’t leave their homes still found social interaction with programs like Meals on Wheels or shut in visits from churches. The pandemic has caused great disruption in person to person social aspects to those programs.

Meals on Wheels of Texoma Executive Director Greg Pittman said the need to keep their clients and their volunteers safe from the pandemic has meant an end to the in-person chats that used to make up part of the service. The meals are all pre packaged and safely dropped off with as little interaction as possible.

Thomas said the people she talks to just want to know someone remembers that they are out there and that they matter.

“I have listened to people who have family right here in this area,” she said. However,, they know their families are busy so they are not going to call them and talk about the isolation and loneliness because they don’t want to be a burden.“

Others have family somewhere, but are no longer on speaking terms for whatever reason. Sometimes, she said, the clients admit the problems in the relationship were their fault, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t still care about their children and grandchildren and long to know that everyone is doing well.

Thomas’ voice cracked and she had to stop a second or two before telling about a woman who said her children had cut her out of their lives.

The woman told Thomas that she knows it is her own fault that her children have reacted the way they have.

“But I have never been so lonely in all of my life,” the woman said. “And I wonder why I am even still alive.”

To people with relationships like that with their elderly family members, Thomas urged compassion.

“No parent should feel like they have been abandoned,” she said and she urged the children to remember their parents loved them even if the parents weren’t perfect and “they gave you life. They provided for you so reach out and touch their lives.”

She said even those with healthy relationships with their families can lose their footing in the social world. Some do so with retirement or as their peer group slowly moves away or dies.

Thomas can relate to those who lost their social circle due to retirement. She retired early to help take care of her mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s.

She worked at the same hair salon from 1983 till 2014, she said, and loved the social aspect to that job. “As a hairdresser you hear all about people’s lives. And you make real friends with some of the clients.”

But as her mother’s illness grew more pronounced, they began to leave home less and less. Then when her mother died in May of 2019.

“And from May of last year to June of this year, especially during COVID, I was feeling pretty isolated myself. I live with my sister and her husband but my sister is 16 years younger than me and she has her own group of friends her own age and I didn’t expect her to change her lifestyle because of me,” Thomas said.

But then she got the call from the Area Agency on Aging Director Judy Conners asking her to do something that she loved to do talk to people.

It’s a fulfilling job and I am glad I can do it. It’s just ten hours a week, but it gives me ten hours a week of being occupied with other people’s lives instead of mine,“ she said.

Conners said she just knew Thomas would be perfect for the job because of her personality and the combination of the job and the woman have proven to be very successful for TCOG.

As for parting advice for those whose loved ones are getting older, Thomas said it is simple.

Call your mom, dad, grandma or grandpa or aunt or uncle.

“Maybe you feel like they don’t add anything to your life,” she said. “But you have to understand that children and grandchildren add a great deal to the lives of the lives of elderly people.”

Conners said the program is limited in the number of people it can reach, but the starting point to get added to Thomas’ list of social interaction is to call the Area Agency on Aging at 903-813-3505 and press option 1.