A social worker for more than 10 years, Tatiana Fortune began to lead the Golden Gate Senior Center in Naples in 2014. Since then, she’s come to understand just how important the center is in the lives of Collier County seniors. Daily lunches, games and conversation were the fabric of many seniors’ daily existence. So in 2018, when she heard of a unique program to reach seniors that the Tallahassee Senior Center was implementing, she knew one day she had to bring it to Naples.
The UPSLIDE program—Utilizing and Promoting Social Engagement for Loneliness, Isolation and Depression in the Elderly—reaches out to one of Florida’s most vulnerable populations.
With women statistically twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, Fortune chose to focus on Collier County women 60 and older.
“We decided to roll out a program because as professionals working with the elderly, we have gotten a lot of reports of people dealing with loneliness, isolation and depression,” Fortune says. “That’s a major issue of a lot of the elderly, that lack of socialization as they get older. A lot of their close friends are passing, or they’re not as close to family for physical reasons.”
Up and running just before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the program has served as a lifeline in Collier County. Golden Gate partners with other mental health and social services agencies and organizations in the community to help strengthen the safety net serving these at-risk adults.
“For this population, the impact of COVID was much more severe,” Fortune says. “This is a place at the senior center where our whole premise was bringing people together. Some people come five days a week. For COVID to hit and everyone to be in quarantine and no one could see each other, it really affected a lot of our program participants. First, there’s a lot of anxiety and fear of COVID with this age range we serve. It was really brought out because they weren’t seeing their friends. They weren’t seeing their family, and that caused an even greater gap for socialization.”
The program takes a two-pronged approach, Fortune explained. Participants could participate in friendship groups and foster connections that might have been lacking in their lives. At the same time, mental health resources and counseling are offered.
Socializing from a distance initially proved difficult—especially since, Fortune said, many of the participants at Golden Gate don’t have access to virtual resources. A lack of smartphones or computers with cameras prevented initial attempts at reaching seniors virtually. That’s when staff went old-school and started working the phone lines with wellness calls and reassurance calls. They mailed newsletters in an attempt to keep clients engaged.
In-person meetings have since resumed with adequate distancing and masks. Fortune and her staff have been able to reach most participants; some are still MIA.
“We try to hope for the best,” Fortune says. “We have questions and we have concerns in care. It’s a little uncertain, especially when we haven’t heard from some people we would normally see and talk with. It does bring us a great deal of concern.”
During her career, Fortune has worked with youth populations, homeless families and various community groups, but working with senior women has really hit home. COVID-19’s risk to older adults is especially marked in Florida, where about 20% of residents are 65 or older, and nearly 40% are over the age of 50.
Funded by the Women’s Foundation of Collier County and Moorings Park Foundation, the program has already supported more than 40 Collier County women. Alelaniz Rosario, who serves as program coordinator, said the program has become a melting pot of ladies from here, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela.
“The majority are widows living alone,” says Rosario, who leads the Thursday classes in both English and Spanish. “They love it because they have something to do once a week. It’s a pleasure for me. As females, we are very emotional people and we attach to other people. The isolation here is tough.”