97-year-old WWII vet, and other Philly seniors, fight loneliness at 'the Breakfast Club'

To battle isolation, 97-year-old Alex Kane (right) breakfasts every Friday at Corner Cafe in Rockledge with other seniors, inviting old friends and many new that he meets in the restaurant, such as Maurice Berry (center), Narissa Ferrer (rear) and Walter Waldron (left).

World War II veteran Alex Kane, 97, keeps a disciplined routine. Every morning, the Elkins Park resident visits his local senior center to play pinochle. He travels into Center City regularly to volunteer on veterans issues and campaigns. And every Friday at 10:30 a.m., he breakfasts with other seniors at the Corner Café on Huntingdon Pike in Rockledge.

He’s looking for folks to join him.

Kane is part of a group of about a dozen people, all in their 80s and 90s, who meet there every week to battle a common enemy, their worst: isolation.

“Many of my friends have died,” he said over breakfast on a Friday earlier this month. “This is important to us, because we’re all in the same boat. You’re lucky if you have family. I consider myself fortunate, I have a son who keeps an eye on me.”

Every Friday, he’s surrounded by a motley group. Some are veterans of the Army, many of whom fought with him in the Battle of the Bulge, the notorious surprise attack that wedged American soldiers between Nazi troops in Europe. Others he met at the Corner Café, or at the Giant supermarket nearby, or at senior centers. Their “Breakfast Club” is open to one and all, he said.

Walter Waldron of Fox Chase lost his wife of 65 years in February. One of his three daughters introduced him to Kane last spring.

“Not being isolated, it makes people feel more relaxed,” Waldron said. “You need friends. It’s kind of a new world for me.”

Waldron picked up Narissa Ferrer in his car on the way to the Corner Café. A former television actress on Phil Silvers’ show Sergeant Bilko, the glamorous Ferrer now works as an artist and painter and is looking to show her work in a gallery.

“I lived in Mexico for 25 years, but I came back to the U.S. for health care – I needed stents,” she explained. Today, she hangs out regularly at the Northeast Older Adult Center at 8101 Bustleton Ave. and joined the Breakfast Club in the last few years.

Another club regular, Ed Jaslow, 93, just married an 83-year-old.

“And she drives!” said Maurice Berry, 93, laughing. Also a WWII Battle of the Bulge veteran, Berry was introduced to Kane and the Corner Café crew by his son-in-law. Next topic? War stories, and fighting over the check for breakfast. Harold Sharp, 95, also met the breakfast club in the restaurant.

Just how important is conquering isolation among seniors? Recent research supports the idea that those with social relationships boast a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival compared with those with poor or insufficient social relationships — comparable with quitting smoking.

Camera icon Erin Arvedlund
Narissa Ferrer shows off one of her paintings to Walter Waldron at breakfast at the Corner Cafe. 

Is isolation itself as bad as smoking cigarettes? For seniors, the answer appears to be yes. According to the study published in 2015 by Perspectives on Psychological Science, millions of people 50 and older (about one person in five in the United States) are living in or at risk of isolation, a health hazard equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“Older isolated people have much higher rates of mortality from breast cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, and other chronic diseases. They are at greater risk for depression and dementia, emergency-room visits and elder abuse,” noted Eric J. Schneidewind, AARP president.

AARP has created a “test” for isolation that seniors can take at https://connect2affect.org. It poses questions about whether you live alone, whether you have regular confidants or phone conversations, and whether you’ve recently experienced a loss.

In this country, extended-family members often don’t live near one another, and loneliness among seniors is increasingly common. So AARP has put together a list of tips to help folks stay connected:

• Schedule a time every day to call a friend or visit someone.
• Meet your neighbors — young and old.
• Use social media such as Facebook or email to stay in touch with long-distance friends, or write an old-fashioned letter.
• Stay active and join group exercise, such as a walking club.
• Take a class to learn something new and, at the same time, expand your circle of friends.
• Revisit an old hobby you’ve set aside and connect with others who share your interests.
• Volunteer to deepen your sense of purpose and help others.
• Visit your local community wellness or senior center and become involved in a wide range of interesting programs.
• Check out faith-based organizations for spiritual engagement, as well as trips and events.