Senior health studies show that social isolation is as important health as flattening the Corona-19 virus infection curve in seniors.
OPINION: It’s Time to Flatten the Loneliness Curve for Older Americans, by Marc Freedman and John Gomperts, was published in Next Avenue, April 20, 2020. The article discusses the impact of social isolation on elder health. This factor was an issue before Covid-19. However, the quarantine has made their social isolation even worse. The article references other countries’ methods of recognizing and responding to social isolation and encouraging elder social engagement. It offers several possible methods to facilitate the development of programs in the USA as engines to promote a better quality of life for seniors and for society in general.
Did you know that grants were made last year to develop a Social Isolation Task Force and create a public education program? These grants were offered to all the state agencies that operate under the mandate of The Older Americans Act.
I was on one of those task forces in my state. The assumption was the public wasn’t aware of the magnitude of social isolation amongst elders. Another assumption was the public wasn’t aware of the effects of social isolation on senior health and cost of care.
Covid-19 changed all that. We‘ve all had a crash course in the experience of social isolation: the Stay-at-Home orders. We’ve seen people reacting, sometimes threatening violence, in a push-back against such measures. Children have suffered socially, emotionally and in their education as a result of being isolated from friends and school. To combat Covid-19, social isolation was one of the few measures we could employ. While we intended to combat the virus with isolation, we didn’t intend to isolate elders before Covid-19. Our society’s systems just didn’t address elder social isolation.
Our society did not face social isolation before because of three factors; our original population, our history, and our lack of a collective memory experience.
Our population was largely imported, usually young adults and their children. Later, they might send for the elders in the old country, or not. A sea voyage could be quite stressful on an older person. Thus, young people settled here. Later, another generation of young people left for the next new frontier. Our history shows that elders were left behind; again, and again. As a result, our focus was a succession of new frontiers. The USA never developed a role or task for elders. Today, our old frontier is closed. It’s time to bring society into the new social frontier: one in which we recognize we are a multi-generational country. There are gifts from each generation. We need to develop a role, and a function that recognizes the value of elders: a living history, perspective and experience.
We also lack a collective memory of the elder’s journey. We all remember things from our childhood; many of us may not “remember” things from our elder hood; unless we have made that journey ourselves. Society hadn’t experienced certain aspects of aging, like social isolation, until now. We should view stay-at-home orders as our chance to learn what life is like for seniors who are forced to stay-at-home.
What puts elders in that position? Their health may not permit frequent trips outside the home. Other elders are trapped at home because they can no longer drive. Public transportation may be too infrequent, too strenuous, or non-existent. Some elders find that vision or hearing problems interfere with socializing. We have few forums in which all generations come together. Religious institutions fill some of that gap but they can’t cover all the bases. Our neighborhoods are often age-segregated. Schools group children into smaller age cohorts: this is not the era of the all-ages, one-room school house. We build age-segregated housing only for elders. How is anyone to learn about the elder journey if our opportunity for observation and interaction are taken away?
Covid-19 has given us a gift in disguise; we all shared some of the elders’ social isolation predicament. We reacted vehemently to these restrictions on ourselves. Now we know what they feel. The recommendations made in this article should be implemented. Let’s learn from this. As the old song says; ”Someday, some d-a-a-y, we’ll be together. Yes we will, yes we will...”
A daughter commented that she had not been able to visit her parent because the facility was “locked down” to prevent the viral spread from Covid. She could only drop his snacks off at the door. She worried. No matter how many times she explained, she still couldn’t get him to understand.
Many elders and their adult children face this dilemma. All facilities are closed to visitation: even when the elder is dying! The more frail the elder, the less likely they can manage total separation. Seniors need tangible connections; touch, sight and hearing.
How do we keep in touch in an era of no-touch? Families often bring presents to these visits, yet; it’s the present of their presence that elders crave. So, how do we convey presence when we can’t be present?
KEEP IT TANGIBLE: E-cards are nice but a classic greeting card is tangible.Your loved one can hold it or look at it repeatedly. Tuck a greeting card into a bag of groceries or a bunch of flowers. The facility staff can point to it to remind them that you are keeping in touch.
MAIL CARDS: It helps support our postal service and your loved one. Getting mail is a big event in care facilities. It’s not how fancy the card, it’s how often you provide a reminder that you care.
TRY PRINTED PHOTOS: These are more tangible. Perhaps you got your loved one a cell phone and sent them pictures. That wasn’t their early experience. For decades, today’s elders only had the paper option. When you send a shiny paper photo it resonates. Photos used to require going to a studio, posing, and were made for special occasions. Photos were important. So printed photos carry an important message from you; “You are important to me”.
Children’s crayon drawings carry the unique, tangible message. They are especially important if the drawings are labeled with the child’s name, date, and something about the picture. That way, the staff can point out the picture later, when the elder says they think they’re forgotten.
WHAT’S THEIR FRAME OF MIND: We’ve all had a crash course about pandemics. Elders may not have paid as much attention to the news. Some have turned news off altogether. 98+% of today’s elders weren’t alive during that last pandemic in 1918. It isn’t part of their experience. They can’t relate to the scale of lock down necessary to contain a pan-demic. Some may have known families who were quarantined when they were children; but they are not familiar with a whole society in quarantine.
So what do you tell them about why you can’t be there? Start by asking them what they know about today’s news. If they have been following the news, use their level of information to determine what you share about your being away.
If they don’t seem to know; try a simpler explanation: you “have to be away for awhile”. You’ve taken vacations, trips and returned. This is just another time away. Promise only that you will return. Say that in a card as well as on the phone. Say it often. “ Someday, some way, we’ll be together”. That’s what the song says and that’s my prayer for all of us.
According to The Strange Political Silence On Elder Care, the problem is our society has an extraordinary number of caregivers who haven’t formed a group to push for change. Unlike other groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), caregivers should have formed a constituency to insist on changes which better support them; but they haven’t. Why not? One surprising finding is that caregivers don’t recognize themselves! How can our society offer support to a person who denies needing help? How can we help if they believe they can’t ask? What is the effect of this lack of coalescing, lack of self-identification and the resulting failure to prepare and plan?
This article describes the possible reasons:
Senior Sidekicks has stood with caregivers for the past 12 years! The caregiving phase is the newest part of life’s journey. A little over 100 years ago, people didn’t live long enough to reach this stage. Our firm has struggled to get new caregivers and those in the midst of caregiving to accept help. Perhaps this article explains why people, who are otherwise prudent, take such a strange view of caregiving.
Let’s compare and contrast caregiving attitudes with attitudes to other parts of life’s journey:
Your getting married, do you make plans? What kind of a wedding would you have if you didn’t acknowledge you were engaged? How would you bring your lives together in marriage: legal, financial, religious, integrating your families, where to live, and children?
My parents, like many during WWII, had a hurry-up wedding. They were high school sweethearts, and engaged in college. When my father finished his course work and ROTC, he was shipped to Texas. The university mailed his diploma. My mother took the train to Texas and they were married by a preacher on base. They had 3 weeks of wedded bliss before he shipped out for 3 years!
Mother went home to a fire storm! Both sets of parents were in shock. Mother had not completed her college education; could she go back and finish? Would the all-girls school take her back as a married woman? Neither of my parents had completed paperwork naming her his spouse? Forms and letters took a long time to reach soldiers in the field and even longer to receive replies. Who would be the listed next-of-kin in the event he didn’t come home? She even had to discuss possible burial arrangements!! Who was now responsible to pay for her education? Was she to receive his pay since she was his spouse? Mother described it as a very trying time that she had to face alone because they didn’t plan.
Weddings are as much a family matter as caregiving. A wedding, without planning, causes major stress. Caregiving, without planning and support also causes major stress. Yet, families will tell me they’ll handle it all by themselves: really?
Let’s look at another example:
You’re having a baby! Does that mean you don’t need any help? If you’re expecting do you still need proper medical care, resolve legal matters, insurance, or a larger place to live? We expect that expectant parents need help. We’ve developed the social systems to provide it. Having children brings many resources into the family. There are Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for both parents in certain situations. There are prepared childbirth classes, visiting nurses to the home after delivery and new mother’s groups. Relatives come to help the new mother and baby. Everybody sends food!
It’s acceptable to have help for babies, why not for caregivers? The difference is we’ve had babies for millennia; caregivers, less than 100 years.
Thus, the family caregiver may or may not receive some defacto help from her church, neighbors, or friends. There’s no visiting nurse system. The caregiver can take FMLA but it’s complicated and doesn’t always cover the type of caregiving the employee needs to give the elder. Many FMLAs don’t pay the employee. Caregiving may mean moving the elder closer to the caregiver, or moving in with the elder. Caregiving may be so demanding that it afflicts the caregiver’s health. The caregiver may be forced to quit the job. A break in the caregiver’s career creates a major financial setback as the caregiver tries to re-enter the workforce. Caregivers often draw on their retirement savings during caregiving.
Other developed countries have seen this writing on the wall and started putting plans in place. Why can’t the US do that? We can, if we act now.
You can do two things:
Talk to your neighbors. Ask what your church is doing for caregivers? Ask your employer the same thing. FMLA, by itself, is not an adequate response.) Are you a member of a union; put caregiver support on the bargaining table. We already have mandatory courses in sexual harassment and discrimination. Make caregiving training the next mandatory course. Are you an employer? If you prepare for tornadoes; prepare for this gray tsunami. By 2030, 1 in 5 Americans will be over age 60
ENTER THE POLITICAL DEBATE ON THE SIDE OF CAREGIVERS: It’s time to insist that the political conversation of this campaign is about p-r-e-p-a-r-i-n-g for this gray tsunami! It touches everyone. It’s not red or blue, it’s GRAY. Candidates will ask for your vote; tell them to put caregiving in their platform to get your vote!
Caregiving is at least as important as any other policy
As we approach the holidays, we consider visiting elderly relatives or arranging for them to visit us. While I cannot offer a guarantee of a pleasant visit, here are a few things to keep in mind to avoid some of the pitfalls
When families gathered on Thanksgiving day, some realized that their senior was not the same as last year. Families often respond by doing internet research. The internet is a good first step. However, some sites make outlandish claims. I saw one that offered a treatment that “cured Alzheimer’s”. There is no cure and some of these sites can offer dangerous suggestions.
Here are a few reputable sites that offer reliable information:
Alzheimer's Association. This site also has a page devoted to explaining the different types of dementia. It also lists other physical conditions or environmental conditions that can look like dementia.
American Society on Aging. It can feel encyclopedic in size. The society has done decades of research and offers reliable information. It’s a good second step.
AARP offers many programs and information for families as well as seniors. Each state has a chapter with offices in each area. Look up your state to find help in your area.
And Senior Sidekicks offers a course; Preparing to Parent Your Parent, to prepare families for the practical issues they will face as they become caregivers. Contact us about teaching this course in your church or at your job. Call (217) 787-5866 or email us for more information.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.