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Cycles of knowledge: Mental health counselor Melinda Spohn, 67, plans 2,500-mile cycling trip to check on senior isolation

April 12, 2021 Updated Mon., April 12, 2021 at 7:03 a.m.

Melinda Spohn plans to embark May 5 on a solo cycling trip of roughly 2,500 miles to draw out some answers. On the backroads across a portion of the Lewis and Clark trail, she wants to hear how older Americans are doing.

That’s because Spohn, 67, has worked more than 20 years with adult seniors as a mental health counselor in Spokane. She directs the Senior Retirement Project, a nonprofit providing low-cost, in-home counseling.

Now, she wants to hear from seniors across the U.S. about how they’re aging, but also how they dealt with COVID-19 isolation. Taking up cycling in her early 50s, Spohn did a 2014 cycle tour to promote senior activity. She’s thought about this trip and decided it had to be now – while she is physically able to – and because of this past year.

“On this journey, I will be visiting with older adults on the backroads and small towns of this country to gain their perspective of aging in America, how they have coped with COVID isolation and explore the topic of finding or maintaining purpose as we age,” Spohn said.

Her overall goal is to bring awareness to the mental health needs of the senior population. She wants to learn from them and blog about some of her findings during the trip at Spohn also hopes to use some of the trip’s material to write a book or media articles.

“I want to get a pulse of the seniors across the country. What are they feeling about this (pandemic)? How have they dealt with this? What are their fears?”

She is scheduled to begin in Hartford, Illinois, and go through 10 states before ending in Spokane after nearly eight weeks. She’ll carry all her gear on the bike and camp along the way.

Semiretired, Spohn, in addition to the nonprofit, also works part time at Pathways of Washington in seniors’ counseling of depression, anxiety and mental health disorders. That work has taken her into assisted-living facilities.

She’s witnessed first-hand the emotional challenges many residents face and recently some of the impacts from the pandemic. Washington state assisted-living communities recently have opened up visiting options under guidelines such as only one person per resident and mask-wearing.

“What I have noticed through this whole year of COVID, and then with it just now starting to open up for some facilities, is that anxiety is really high, and there’s depression, definitely,” Spohn said.

“There’s also sort of the mistrust of, ‘OK, we’re going to get out, and then they’ll slam the door shut on us again.’ I literally have clients who haven’t been out for a year. Their dining rooms have been shut down, so meals are served in their rooms.”

That meant a year without being in person with other residents, friends and family.

“They’re just isolated, and they feel like they’re prisoners, literally. I’ve heard that so many times, ‘We’re prisoners. Don’t people know we’re prisoners?’ They aren’t coping well.”

However, some seniors at facilities have adjusted well, she said. One woman, about age 99, has a positive attitude and dispenses a lot of humor, she said.

“She has adjusted well, but that’s not the norm. I think there will be some people on my trip who will have words of wisdom, like how she handled it with a lot of humor. It was sort of like, ‘I’m 99, what can get worse?’ “

Spohn saw recent newscasts on how the lockdown affected kids, without addressing seniors.

“I thought, no one is considering how it’s affecting the most significant population that’s been affected outside of children, which is our seniors who’ve actually been locked in facilities for a year.”

Spohn expects she’ll hear different outlooks and scenarios on her trip. Finding seniors to talk to won’t be difficult.

“When you’re riding across the country on a bicycle loaded down with panniers, people tend to be attracted to you,” she said. “It’s a great conversation starter.”

“I’m also going to try – and it depends on hopefully if more and more is open – to connect with retirement communities or senior community centers along the way and stop in and talk.”

Spohn will go through a few larger cities such as Bismarck, which might show an interesting comparison to small towns, she said.

Among some people she’s talked to at Spokane facilities, the past year was overwhelming without seeing family or only seeing relatives through a window. “I think for some, it’s too much.”

Some places had empty apartments because the seniors had moved in with families since spring 2020. But in a separate blog on senior life strategies, Spohn recently wrote about how staff among different facilities told her about the deaths of some residents this past year, but not from COVID-19.

“They said, ‘We have lost a lot of people who died,’ and they were saying it wasn’t from COVID,” Spohn said. “A lot of them feel about the amount of people who died, it was just that they couldn’t stand the isolation anymore, and they just kind of gave up.”

“That’s another piece to look at on this trip. How did you feel during isolation? Did you feel like you didn’t care anymore? It may all come back to personality, that those with the more outgoing and positive personalities feel better. I don’t know. I’ll find out.”

Whether people stayed isolated in a house or a facility, another aspect is readjustment to the outside world. Spohn said one facility was set to take a group of seniors to Walmart recently for the first time, and she warned them.

“I told them, ‘You watch, be careful because they had not been out in the community for a year, and they are going to be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, smells, the people,’ ” she said. The caretakers later told her she was correct about having to stay close to the seniors because they were overwhelmed.

“Right now, we just don’t know the long-term effect a year of isolation has had on seniors’ mental health,” Spohn said. “And there is this mistrust of what are we going to do if they slam the door shut again? I think it’s going to have a really long-term effect on their mental health, most definitely.”

Spohn also encourages older Americans to be active in movement and exercise. She’s taking a sabbatical from work for the trip.

“I’m getting my will in order,” she said while laughing. Spohn’s only real concerns are distracted drivers and perhaps sheltering if tornado season strikes.

She’s using a trail map from the Adventure Cycling Association in Montana.

“The cool thing about what Adventure Cycling does is they route you through the very small little towns,” she said. “You’re not on major highways. I’ll be going through towns with populations of 200 or 300, so you get a real snapshot of Americana.”

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