When Rhea Applebaum joined a bereavement group in February of 2018, dating was the last thing on her mind.
She had lost her husband to a sudden illness five months earlier and hadn’t recovered from the shock. She met with about a dozen seniors who were also mourning their spouses and talked about how she felt like she was losing her memories of him, how she couldn’t conjure his smell or the feeling of his arms around her anymore.
Mike Chernoff had joined the group in July the previous year, after his beloved wife died. He and his dog felt lost without her.
“I remember one of the saddest things was that he would run up the steps looking for her and not find her,” he said. When the dog died soon after, he turned to his peers for support and met Applebaum once she started coming to meetings.
The two Northeast Philadelphia residents got to know each other well in the intimate group setting and discovered they shared a love of reading and music. Eventually, Chernoff asked Applebaum to accompany him to a performance at the Philadelphia Orchestra, and she said yes.
The bereavement group created by Abramson Senior Care and KleinLife greeted the couple’s news with enthusiasm when they learned of the relationship. Members feel like a family, facilitator Brie Yousaitis said.
The program was originally intended to serve seniors grieving the loss of a spouse, and later expanded to include people mourning other kinds of loss. It now acts as a general support group for all kinds of issues, from dealing with the fear and isolation of the pandemic to navigating relationship problems.
“Since everybody started coming, we’ve lost children, animals, relationships have started and ended,” said Yousaitis, director of psychosocial support for hospice and palliative care at Abramson Senior Care. “So we’ve been through a lot, obviously also with the pandemic as well.”
When the KleinLife facilities closed at the beginning of the pandemic, the group had to change course. Simply moving the meetings to Zoom was not an option due to technological challenges for older members, Yousaitis said.
They decided to restart in August and hold meetings outside instead. Chernoff volunteered his lawn, but as this was only viable in good weather, they had to stop meeting again in November. They kept in touch via text and social media, but processing loss and the challenges of life during the pandemic just wasn’t the same without face-to-face interaction.
Six members of the group, five of whom are Jewish, reunited at Chernoff’s house after months of separation on April 8. They brought lawn chairs and fully vaccinated immune systems.
Yousaitis said socializing is especially important for the senior population, which was already facing isolation due to decreased social activity, leaving work and deaths of loved ones. Then COVID-19 cut them off from family and friends. While romantic relationships can certainly take off in support group settings, most participants join to find solace in friendships at a time when their support networks may not be as strong as they used to be.
“When they lose their significant other or someone really close, it’s like losing part of your own self. You have to find yourself again. The way to do this is socializing with others,” she said. “As we get older, we lose daily connections with people. There’s no more work, sometimes family is not close or you have a global pandemic. Friends are passing or live far away, so the socialization is so huge.”
In addition to reaping the benefits of camaraderie from the support group, Applebaum and Chernoff have been together for three and a half years now.
“I just love the kindness of him, his intelligence, how good he is to everyone around him,” Applebaum said. Chernoff said his favorite things about Applebaum are her personality and the ways she embraces Judaism.
Applebaum introduced Chernoff to her family and they welcomed him with open arms. Her grandchildren and great-grandchildren now know him as Saba Mike.
“He is the only great-grandfather that they will know,” she said. “He came for the first Chanukah with the kids and didn’t leave.”