Isolation — a problem that’s proliferated with the pandemic — can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, research shows.

To help combat the problem, The Independence Center received $57,000 in federal coronavirus relief funding to provide tablets, cellphones, mobile hotspots and other technology to disabled and elderly residents in El Paso, Teller and Park counties, said Michele Chamberlain, independent living program manager for the center. In some cases the new devices may be an upgrade and provide access to microphones and video cameras so that residents can interact with their families, support group members, medical professionals and others, she said.

“That face to face contact to be able to see that person is huge to be able to combat that isolation,” Chamberlain said.

In addition to providing devices, the nonprofit is also planning to give disabled and senior residents in need free internet service for a year, with the hope that individuals can take over the $9.99 per month payments once the first year has lapsed, she said. However, this low-cost service is not available in more rural areas. In areas with poor internet service, the nonprofit plans to provide mobile hotspots, she said.

The center expects to help 150 to 200 people through the grant and tailor the technology to each person’s circumstances. The first devices could be delivered in January, she said.

As the cellphones, laptops and other devices flow out to the community, Jody Barker director of Pikes Peak Area Agency on Aging, said he hopes the recipients will have their pandemic experience completely changed through online classes and groups.

He also said he hopes that program can be continued beyond the emergency funding to help connect people socially even after the pandemic because isolation can lead to poor health habits and contributes to cognitive decline. The cumulative effect of isolation can be as bad as detrimental for a person’s health as chain smoking, he said.

“This pandemic has really revealed challenges across all society as it relates to social isolation,” he said.

Gail Melton, who leads support groups for Independence Center, has seen how online meetings can help those with fragile health who have been unable to see their families or participate in hobbies and sometimes struggle with boredom and depression, she said.

Melton’s weekly online group typically draws about eight people from Cripple Creek, Victor and Woodland Park with a range of different disabilities who have been sharing experiences they are missing most, such as visits with their children. The group expects to meet during the day on Christmas Eve because they have gotten so close, Melton said.

“They have just been incredible with one another,” she said.

Melton herself was disabled by Polio as a child and uses leg braces to walk. Then as an adult in the 1990s she was in a car accident and suffered a head injury that effected her speech. After her accident she went to the Independence Center for help and later started a support groups in Teller County through the center.

“Human beings are much stronger than we give ourselves credit for. … We have the ability to help each other, pull each other out things if we stay open and compassionate,” Melton said.

While some seniors can shy away from forming friendships online, Sandy Bailey, who lost most of her vision in 2013, joined a remote support group before the pandemic started. A former online college student and then an online business technology and computer applications professor, she’s found strong friendships can be formed online.

“I recognize personalities just as well as if I’m talking face to face,” said Bailey, who is 73.

Seniors and residents with disabilities can get more information about the program by calling 719-471-8181 or 719-510-2547. The center is taking signups for its first order of devices. The technology will be provided on a first come first served basis.

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