Seniors citizens lack socializing opportunities that are vital to physical and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic — UPDATED

Robert Lehrman practices table tennis with his ping pong ball robot in his garage.

“Let me show you my robot!” Robert Lehrman, 77, said as he walked into his garage.

The robot stood at four feet tall and fired ping pong balls across a table, mirroring the actions of a table tennis opponent. Over a video call, Lehrman began hitting the small orange and white balls one after another into a net across the table, demonstrating his skill. He has been practicing here in his garage with his mechanical partner every day since the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March.

Lehrman has played at the D.C. Table Tennis Center, playing on the seniors’ competitive league, for seven years. However, being within the at-risk population for COVID-19, he has not returned since the outbreak for fear of infection. He said he feels lucky to be able to play at home, and to spend more time with his wife, but the comradery with his ping pong friends is lacking.

“It’s more than just playing, we have loads of things to talk about,” he said in a video call interview, explaining how much he misses his teammates. “I will be happier when all of this is over.”

Lehrman, like many other seniors, lack socializing opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many programs that are vital to physical and mental health have been forced to limit capacity or shift to virtual engagement. Both come with challenges for senior participants.

The D.C. Table Tennis Center has been opened to a very limited number of players since mid-April, but this week the center will open its doors to limited league tournaments once again, including the senior teams Lehrman once played on. For the players’ safety, they have installed automatic doors, an online table reservation system, as well as remote controlling of door locks, lights, air conditioners, and ping pong robots.

Before COVID-19 the center hosted an average of 60 people a night. Now, the city declared a maximum capacity of 20. However, Khaleel Asgarali, the owner and head coach, is precautionary and only allows 12 to 15 players to practice at once.

Asgarali said in a video call interview that about 90% of the players in his center are over the age of 55, so he feels “a huge responsibility” to keep them safe. “It’s terrifying,” he said, “There’s a lot of vulnerable people around me.” Asgarali takes his players’ mental health seriously as well their physical health noting that ping pong is a stress reliever, a social activity, and a form of exercise.

Eugene O’Bryan, 69, founded the seniors’ league at the center and has dedicated his retirement to bettering himself in ping pong. He used table tennis as a way to keep in shape and make friends. “I need those things,” he said in a video call interview. But O’Bryan hasn’t touched a paddle in six months.

O’Bryan said he has had medical setbacks in the past, requiring him to take an 18 month break from practicing which hindered his progress in the sport. “I had all these plans to get to a certain level of skill and play at certain tournaments. But I was waylaid for quite some time for recovery,” he said. Then, just after starting lessons again, the pandemic forced him and everyone else inside. “I guess I’m used to disappointment,” O’Bryan said.

Iona Senior Services, a small non-profit in Northwest D.C. that works to build community for senior citizens through education and local engagement, has had similar philosophies and challenges relating to growth and development. Courtney Tolbert, the Program Manager for Iona, directs weekly classes and conversations surrounding cultural education and “active wellness” for seniors.

In a phone interview, she recalls a class from several years ago where women with cognitive decline learned about women in jazz. A year later, a participant with Alzheimer’s was attending a museum trip with Iona and her memory was triggered by an exhibit, causing her to remember their class from the year before. The woman was ecstatic. “That’s the drug for me, that’s why I do this, to create that moment,” Tolbert said.

Now, with COVID-19 threatening all her program development, Tolbert said, “I feel like I’ve left so many participants behind.” Every member has different neurological deficiencies and living conditions at home. Some have access to technology, some don’t. Some have visual impairments; others have physical impairments. The D.C. Office of Aging and Community Development offers basic resources like food delivery, nutrition information, repair services abuse hotlines, and caregiver programs, but social interactions and socializing will continue to be unsafe for their physical health.

It’s nearly impossible to cultivate an environment comparable to what they offered before, Tolbert said. “Emotional memory is the strongest one” but with everyone at home, these “emotional memories aren’t active,” she said. For some seniors, their health is at risk if they leave their house, and when they are forced to stay in.

For example, Ted Udelson, 58, a competitive table tennis player at the center, suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Type 1 Diabetes. There is no cure for MS, but rather a treatment of symptoms including physical therapy, frequent medical tests, and pain medications. The most common symptoms of MS are a lack of leg strength, balance, coordination, and cognitive decay, but these are also the most important skills to have in in ping pong. Udelson attributes table tennis as his most successful treatment, and without his health took a serious decline.

When the pandemic began and everything shut down for over a month, Udelson dropped all treatment and didn’t see his trainers or practice ping pong. “I felt like my entire physical condition was flushed down the toilet,” he said in a phone interview.

After the center underwent its safety precautions, Asgarali set up private lessons with Udelson three times a week. Within a couple of weeks, Udelson said he felt better. He said his doctor has been continuously amazed at his test results since beginning lessons and she credits table tennis for his body’s health and endurance.

A study about the physiological demands of table tennis cites the importance of endurance in coaches’ training methods to train them in awareness; “players are often not only physically exhausted after a competition, but also highly mentally tense.” Asgarali’s coaching mirrors these methods especially with his older players.  Playing table tennis keep players physically fit and mentally sharp. Udelson said he and Asgarali will discuss religion and debate Bruce Springsteen versus Bob Dylan while playing table tennis. He said Asgarali is “good to the bone” and their comradery is of near importance to building his skill.

Before the pandemic, Asgarali offered free classes on Tuesday mornings for people with neurological conditions because of the improvement he saw with Udelson’s MS. Udelson said his goal is “to create a revolution where people with MS learn about table tennis” and how it can help them.

With modified leagues resuming this week at the D.C. Table Tennis Center, senior members are holding out for when things return to normal and they can practice their passion again.

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