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Senior Isolation During the Coronavirus Pandemic

April 13, 2020
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A consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic is forced isolation on seniors who rely on socialization. COVID-19 is exacerbating loneliness, which is dangerous to the health and well-being of older adults. Here are some ways you can understand and alleviate the health risks of senior isolation during this trying time. 

As the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) forces us to practice safe social distancing, our neighborhoods, local communities, and airwaves have been flooded with ever-changing advisories related to the pandemic. Government officials have been scrambling to flatten the curve while addressing urgent medical care needs as well as our nation’s rapid plummet into an economic recession. 

However, little attention has been given to what some medical professionals are calling a social recession” – a fraying of social bonds that continue to unravel the longer we go without human interaction. Social connections help us address the challenges we face as individuals and as a society. So, while many parents are overwhelmed with the new normal of having their children learning from home while they are working from home, the greater concern may fall on their own parents. How can forced isolation affect older adults, especially when they may have already been lonely, to begin with? COVID-19 could very well magnify the health risks of solitude.

The AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect has cautioned that more than 8 million adults aged 50 and older are negatively affected by social isolation and loneliness, a “growing health epidemic” akin to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

Research has also shown that people who are isolated and have feelings of loneliness are at a higher risk for health conditions such as high blood pressure, cognitive decline, heart disease, a weakened immune system, and depression.  

And this was on a normal day, before COVID-19 swept across the nation, prompting “stay-at-home” directives in most states in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. We now face travel restrictions, and the closure of schools, houses of worship, community centers, and all “non-essential” businesses. We have even been advised to see only the people we live with, keeping us apart from most family and friends.

According to the Centers For Disease Control (as of April 2020), the most vulnerable to the virus are the elderly (people 65 years and older) and people with underlying medical conditions such as:

  • Chronic lung disease
  • Moderate to severe asthma
  • Serious heart conditions
  • A compromised immune system 
  • Diabetes
  • Kidney disease (undergoing dialysis)
  • Liver disease
  • Severe obesity

So, we must consider the potential negative repercussions of age, the aforementioned medical conditions, and loneliness when combined.

What “Social Distancing” Means for Older Adults

We are all at risk of feeling lonely and isolated during this time of social distancing. However, the people who are at higher risk for severe illness, our elderly population, may bear the brunt of the social separation. 

Self-isolation for many older adults means a sudden disconnection from all social outlets. Family and friends are warned to stay away, or at a distance of six feet, leaving most elders at home alone (with the exception of those requiring private care). Even those residing in senior living residences and nursing homes are in forced isolation, with the closure of communal dining rooms, halted group activities, and visitor restrictions.

The isolation needed to slow the rate of the virus could incite dire health consequences for older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions. The unfortunate paradox of doing what is necessary to keep our loved ones safe will ultimately require action to mitigate mental and physical consequences.

How We Can Help With Senior Isolation

Social and physical distancing does not have to mean social disengagement. Here are some easy ways you can help ease your loved one into the new normal:

  • Use technology to stay connected: There are many online options to facilitate “togetherness” with family and friends. Facetime, Skype, Zoom, and Facebook are free and easy ways to get that much-needed “face-time.” Most older adults own a smartphone, desktop computer, or laptop where virtual exercise classes, worship services, books, and games are readily available. Logging into some of these platforms may not be intuitive for some seniors, but a quick Zoom call with a grandchild or a tech-savvy family member will give them the tutorial they need to access these useful tools. Remember, patience is a virtue. And don’t forget the good old fashioned phone call. Designate time to talk, and don’t rush the conversation. With so many working from home, allotting some time in your weekly routine to spend virtual time with a lonely neighbor or loved one will go a long way.
  • Send mail: Encourage friends and family to write cards and letters. Send a care package with favorite snacks, playing cards, puzzles, essential household products, and family photos. A trip to the mailbox will give your loved one a chance to stretch their legs and get some fresh air. Physical correspondence will serve as a reminder that they are in your thoughts.
  • Offer to do necessary errands: Those at risk for suffering the severest consequences from exposure to COVID-19 will be unable to retrieve daily necessities such as groceries and medications. Offer to grocery shop for those in need, and drop it off at their door. Be sure to wave and say hello from the appropriate distance before you go.
  • Start a book or movie club: We all need to know what is going on in the world during this troubling time, but spending too much time watching “breaking news” concerning the virus can cause additional anxiety and stress. Recommend family and friends select a book of the week, and plan a video conference to discuss it in an improvised book club. If your loved one is not a reader, send the gift of a Netflix membership, and have virtual movie nights. 

COVID-19: The New Normal

Social solidarity has come to life as the Coronavirus has taken hold of the nation. We have seen heartfelt moments of families visiting loved ones through windows of nursing homes, anniversary signs, birthday songs, and love letters displayed from a distance. If our new reality means “drive-by” hellos and car parades for birthdays, then this is what we shall do to maintain some sort of normalcy.

Human beings are social animals instinctively, and the Coronavirus has threatened those connections. No one knows how long this social isolation will go on. But we do know that people’s well-being will certainly take a hit during these uncertain times. Because the negative effects of social isolation on mental health are vast, it’s crucial that we check in with our loved ones. As we continue to face the biggest challenge of our lives, let’s make it a priority to reach out to our senior neighbors and family members who may be having a difficult time dealing with the stress and anxiety that social isolation inflicts. 

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