The smell of perfumed smoke turned my head Tuesday morning outside the Monterey Park dance club where 11 people were gunned down Saturday night. A man named Scott, seated in a wheelchair, was lighting incense sticks to honor the dead.
“What else can we do?” asked Scott, 57, who requested that I not use his last name. He told me he’s Chinese, he was born in Vietnam, and he was disabled years ago by a stroke.
Even before all the wreaths were laid in Monterey Park, along with a sign that says "Ban semi-automatic rifles," the same question was being asked in Half Moon Bay, where seven people were gunned down. Few details about that shooter were immediately available.
But we know that the 72-year-old responsible for the Monterey Park massacre — who is believed to have taken his own life — lived alone in Hemet, according to news accounts. He is the oldest mass murderer in recent history, and his victims were in their 50s, 60s and 70s. The Times described him as a divorced, lonely and embittered man.
Whatever might have motivated him, I wondered if isolation was a factor. We're told that he was a dance instructor, so he wasn’t totally disengaged. But isolation can be an emotional as well as a physical state.
“I see a lot of people wandering around here alone,” Scott said. “It’s how they live their lives.”
There are plenty of communal activities available to older residents of Monterey Park, said Derek Ma, founding president and chair of the Chinese American Community Affairs Council. “But a lot of people are alone because their husband or wife passes away,” Ma said, and the stress of feeling cut off from people and purpose, he added, can have tragic consequences.
Isolation is no small matter in the rapidly aging population, and the depression that results often goes undiagnosed and untreated. California’s Master Plan for Aging specifically cites the need to confront isolation, a challenge complicated by the fact that 2 million residents “do not have access to high-speed internet and approximately 34% of adults over 60 do not use the internet at all," as the plan states.
Even if they are wired, and even if they are not financially destitute, a lot of people feel disconnected, alone and scared. Since I started the Golden State column Jan. 15, readers have filled my mail bag with detailed, sometimes heartbreaking accounts of their struggles.
“I have to work hard to have a social network going throughout the week,” wrote Judy, 79, of Torrance. When she feels up for it, Judy goes to church and the grocery store and chats with neighbors while dog walking. "But when I have a week of sickness and cannot do those things, I see nobody. Life is very difficult when that happens.”
“My life is so small now,” said Marilyn, 77, who lives south of San Francisco. “I still drive. But the pandemic's ongoing psychological toll is immense. I don't expect this isolation will change in my lifetime.”
Deanna, a retiree living in Oregon, said that making friends has been much harder than she anticipated. "The isolation and loneliness really get to me…I try to find contentment and joy each day, but still I think about dying. I don’t look forward to more surgeries and recoveries.”
Julia, 82, of Santa Barbara, wrote that her husband has dementia. “For the last three years he had been steadily declining…I’m his full-time caregiver and…to watch someone you love and have lived with for 60 years disappear before your eyes is beyond depressing." Julia has medical issues, so "caring and thinking for both of us is exhausting.”
“I have witnessed the struggles of my peers and our elders living in relative isolation with financial and medical crises unable to help themselves despite reaching out to the respective financial and medical agencies purportedly designed to do just that,” wrote Grace, 66, a psychiatrist. “In a wink of an eye, each and every one of us could be facing a life crisis without the safety net to see them through.”
I could go on, and I haven't yet worked through the more than 2,000 emails I've gotten from readers since asking them to share the pros and cons of aging. Many of them are prospering, but there are enough people struggling, in one way or another, to fill a book.
If indeed a sense of otherness or isolation motivated the shooter in Monterey Park, it's all the more painful to note that his victims were fully engaged members of the community, all of them participating in innocent, healthy activity.
After I visited the site of the shooting, I drove to the nearby senior center to see how people were coping in the aftermath of the Lunar New Year celebration-turned nightmare. But the center was closed to the public — it was being used as a counseling and resource center for those who lost loved ones.
So I headed out to the Montebello Senior Center, a warm, welcoming oasis from the lingering shock of unspeakable violence — the latest blow to our sense of security and sanity. Four dozen people played bingo in one room while another two dozen people paced through a line-dancing class.
At the height of the pandemic, senior centers had to close their doors, but they switched to virtual classes and checked in on their most vulnerable clients — the ones living alone and known to have trouble paying their bills and buying groceries. The Montebello Senior Center was no different.
“We’ve seen a lot of our seniors going homeless,” said Bianca Herrera, a senior center aide, in some cases because someone in a multigenerational dwelling got COVID and families had to split up to avoid spreading the virus.
There were lots of mental health issues and food shortages during the pandemic, as well. The senior center staff helped as much as it could, Herrera said, “but even we had trouble finding services.”
When the bingo game ended, Maria Limas told me she lost her husband in 2021 and sank in despair before connecting with the senior center. Lucia Alcaraz, another bingo player, told me she lost her husband 10 years ago and it took a while, but she’s now achieved a full sense of engagement and purpose at the senior center.
Alcaraz said she raised her hand at a club meeting following the Monterey Park shooting and suggested that everyone be more vigilant about who’s struggling, troubled and alone.
That’s a long list, and it now includes the survivors of yet more victims of senseless violence.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.