Joyce Pool

A man shoots pool while wearing the required mask at the Joyce Raye Patterson 50+ Activity Center.

If people in the area follow the advice of local and national health experts, holidays like Thanksgiving will look different this year.

For the most vulnerable in St. Joseph, people 65 and older, that means not being able to attend Thanksgiving in person. To some, that can bring a great deal of emotion.

“I’ve been seeing my family on Zoom for several months. I was really hoping this COVID stuff would be over by now so we could share a meal,” Tracey Bell, an 81-year-old who lives with her husband, Ronald, said.

The lack of in-person family activities is tying in with growing feelings of unaddressed depression in people 65 and older, according to The GeneSight Mental Health Monitor. The survey takes into account the onset of colder weather, fewer daylight hours, and the effect of the pandemic on holiday celebrations and traditions, as reasons more seniors than ever could be struggling with depression.

It’s a reason why local senior centers and living communities, like the Joyce Raye Patterson 50+ Activity Center, want to help give people encouragement during the holiday season.

“We offer some of our health and wellness programming to try and give people a place to go, to at least work on keeping active and their diet, the kind of foods that they’re eating, so they can stay healthy and give them a place to go where they feel like they’re safe,” Julie Noel, senior center manager at the senior center, said.

For the holidays, the Bells are feeling some of the weight of being away from their family. During a normal year, they would normally travel to see their family in Kansas for the holidays. With COVID cases rising in the triple digits in St. Joseph, as well as skyrocketing in Kansas, they made the tough decision to stay home and follow the Center for Disease Control’s advice of having a virtual Thanksgiving.

“It’s the best we can do right now and certainly better than talking over the phone,” Tracey said.

Hosting a virtual Thanksgiving can go a long way in helping seniors deal with feelings of isolation and depression during the holidays.

“It’s more important than ever to let each other know we care and that we are not alone — even if it feels that way,” said Dr. Parikshit Deshmukh, the CEO and medical director at Balanced Wellbeing LLC, who specializes in geriatric psychiatry. “Video calls might not be for everyone. Yet, if that’s the only way to stay in touch, we need to do it.”

It’s similar advice to what local senior centers are hearing and encouraging — that more people in the vulnerable categories for the coronavirus will be connecting through video conferencing apps than in person.

“They just don’t feel like it’s worth risking somebody’s health to see each other (for a) holiday. And then they can get together when all of this is over with. Hopefully, that’ll be sooner than later,” she said.

Hearing that seniors are avoiding in-person contact is encouraging to Noel. Since the pandemic started, the Joyce Raye Patterson 50+ Activity Center has been proactive about protecting its senior members. Because of rising COVID numbers, it canceled its annual Thanksgiving feast.

It’s not lost on the senior center staff that the lack of in-person contact is having an effect on older people. It’s why the center stays open, with free, socially distanced programs presented by organizations like Mosaic Life Care, the University of Missouri Extension and Young At Heart Resources that offer people exercise and group activities to keep them healthy and engaged.

“We are actually seeing a small increase in people coming to some of these programs,” Noel said. “Sometimes people struggle a little bit on that fixed income. It being free makes it affordable for everyone, and nobody’s left out.”

Noel said she wants to see people play it safe during the holidays but also be aware of their mental health. If possible, she hopes a little unity can help.

“The good thing is (seniors) do still have a place to come because we’re not closed. So they can still come and work out in the fitness center, do their group things, if their group is meeting, and at least visit with each other across a table,” she said.

Andrew Gaug can be reached at andrew.gaug@newspressnow.com.

Follow him on Twitter: @NPNOWGaug