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No lost connection: Little acts help older Coloradans living alone

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Good friends Gay Sinclair (left) met Dawnelle O’Brien (right) for the first time after talking on the phone for eight months.
Photo: Amanda Horvath, Rocky Mountain PBS

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — On a near-freezing December day, two good friends embraced in a warm hug for the first time. Smiles shined through tears as they connected after eight months of chatting over the phone.

Dawnelle O’Brienhas called GaySinclair about once a week since Sinclair signed up for care calls through a nonprofit organization called A Little Help. When she signed up for calls and other services through the organization, Sinclair was recovering from a heart attack and lived alone.

At first, O’Brien and Sinclair’s calls lasted maybe five or ten minutes, but their friendship quickly grew. Now, their talks are sometimes an hour-and-a-half long. 

“I was just amazed that we got deeper in our conversations,” Sinclair said. 

“We didn't just keep saying, ‘Hello, how are you?’ And we got deeper. And I just was amazed that I had a friend at 71 — a new friend — because all my old friends, most of them are gone or something," she said. 

Sinclair is one of thousands of Americans over 65 who live alone, a number that is increasing, according to the latest census data. From 2010 to 2020, the percentage of one-person households of someone 65 or older rose from 9.4% to 11.1%.

Colorado Voices

A Little Help

A nonprofit helps connect neighbors with older adults who need a little help.

Sinclair said she doesn’t often leave her house because of her age and because her 18-year-old German Shepherd requires a significant amount of attention when they’re out of the house.  

Sinclair’s isolation makes her relationship with O’Brien all the more special.  

“We're connected, and that's the only connection to the outside world anymore. I mean, besides going to King Soopers or Denver Health for something,” Sinclair said.  

While loneliness can happen at any age, a study published in the BMC public health journal showed older people are particularly vulnerable to experiencing loneliness and social isolation. An estimated 50% of individuals 60 or older are at risk of social isolation and one-third will experience some degree of loneliness later in life, according to the study. 

Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression and cognitive decline. 

“I felt in awe and grateful, actually, to have some kind of a friendship starting like that – just even on the phone,” said Sinclair 

The care calls and friendship mean a lot to O’Brien, too. Even though, at 50, O’Brien is a bit younger than Sinclair, she also rarely leaves her home due to health challenges, including blindness. O’Brien lives with her husband, who is also blind, and their two dogs.    

Several years ago, when her declining health prevented her from holding a full-time job, O’Brien decided she wanted to volunteer. But many organizations wouldn’t allow her to volunteer because she was "a liability,” she said. 

Dawnelle O’Brien volunteers with A Little Help by making care calls to older individuals. Photo: Julio Sandoval, Rocky Mountain PBS. 

Volunteering with A Little Help gives O’Brien the chance to make a difference from her home. She has been making care calls to older individuals once a week for more than five years. 

“Being blind I'm so closed in, my community is so small,” O’Brien said. "So, this gives me a better, bigger community to have my friends.” 

A Little Help exists to bridge connections like these between neighbors, said Hilary Simmons, the nonprofit’s executive director.  

The organization, which began as Washington Park Cares in 2005 before incorporating as a nonprofit in 2007, provides services for more than 2,700 older adults in the Denver metro area, northern Colorado and Grand Junction. The services include care calls, transportation, yard work, cleaning, assistance with technology and, in the winter, hanging up holiday lights.

A Little Help staff used their Volunteer Time Off (VTO) to hang lights at this Denver home on Dec. 12. Photo: Julio Sandoval, Rocky Mountain PBS.  

Two weeks before Christmas, some of the staff from A Little Help used their volunteer time off to hang holiday lights at a Denver house. The owner, Marianinha, lives alone and doesn’t have the mobility to decorate the house for the holiday by herself.  

The group purchases new lights and equipment needed to hang the decorations thanks to a grant. Despite the near-freezing temperatures that day, staff said they know this sort of volunteer work does make a difference.  

“We do it because we know we're making an impact,” said Jake Dresden, metro Denver director for A Little Help. “It's not so much always about what we're doing, it's about the fact that we take time out of our day to actually come visit with them.” 

“At the root of every service is really that neighborly connection,” said Simmons. “So not only are we just giving that ride to the doctor or the grocery store or picking up groceries, we're really getting to know our older neighbors and connecting with the community to make sure that we're combating loneliness and isolation.”  

O’Brien and Sinclair reflected on the meaning of their friendship throughout their first in-person meeting. In fact, it was something O’Brien even noted in a recent report to A Little Help. 

“I wrote, ‘Gay was telling me what she was thankful for this year at Thanksgiving, and she told me that she was thankful for me calling [her] all the time,’” said O’Brien.  

“I was like, ‘My gosh, you're making me cry … So yeah, I wrote them and told them that we were crying over talking to each other.” 

Amanda Horvath is the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. 

Julio Sandoval is a senior photojournalist at Rocky Mountain

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