MINNEAPOLIS — Mary O’Neill has found herself a younger man who brightens her days and eases the loneliness and isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
And the 98-year age difference would bother O’Neill were it not for the smiles, the ball throwing, the giggles and - most importantly - the bubbles she shares across the chain-link fence separating her from 2-year-old neighbor Benjamin Olson.
“They’re the closest thing to grandchildren I have around here,” O’Neill, 100, told KARE about Benjamin and his baby brother, Noah.
The unlikely friendship blossomed as both O’Neill and the Olsons found themselves largely homebound because of pandemic restrictions. One year later, Benjamin has learned to open the gate granting him access to the woman his mother calls his “best friend,” and both boys’ photos now adorn O’Neill’s dining room table, the TV station reported.
“They’re the closest thing to grandchildren I have around here,” O’Neill told KARE, noting all of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren live outside Minnesota.
Kathleen Zuke, senior program manager for the National Council on Aging’s Center for Healthy Aging told Real World Health Care that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a host of issues older adults commonly face, including social isolation, loneliness, economic insecurity, difficulty accessing health care services and racial inequities.
Real World Health Care is sponsored by the HealthWell Foundation, a nonprofit organization providing financial assistance to help underinsured patients living with chronic or life-altering conditions afford their medical treatments. To date, the foundation has provided more than $1.6 billion in grant support to more than 500,000 underinsured patients across over 70 disease areas.
Zeke highlighted for Real World Health Care a 2018 study on potential health risk factors of social isolation and loneliness in which the author concluded that “being socially connected significantly reduces risk for premature mortality, while being socially unconnected significantly increases risk.
Specifically, the study presented evidence that social isolation increases risk for depression, cognitive decline and dementia, while also directly influencing medication/treatment adherence, blood pressure, immune function and inflammation and the ability to conduct daily-living activities, the outlet reported.
Mary Olson, Benjamin’s mother, told KARE that watching her older son embrace his “first best friend” has been both heartwarming and enlightening.
For instance, Mary Olson said that she had no idea that O’Neill pined for the toddler’s infectious laugh when long stretches of cold and rain kept everyone indoors.
“I had never known that. I’m so happy they have each other,” she said after overhearing O’Neill tell the TV station that she missed seeing the boys during inclement weather.
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