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...”
How do you know when this old house is the wrong house now? Seniors who are reluctant to move may refuse to leave.
One senior refused to leave her old neighborhood even though the neighborhood had changed. As she left for church one morning, she was shot in the heart by a stray bullet. Waiting to move until there’s a crisis means the senior loses control of the move. The senior who was shot was moved by others. They didn’t know what she had wanted to take with her; she lost some things which made her very sad.
Taking your senior on a decision-making journey helps them to see for themselves that things have changed. A senior realized a move was necessary when she needed more medical care. The house by the lake was too far away. She spent anxious moments waiting for first responders to arrive when she was in need.
A house is not a home, even though some seniors think they’re the same. One senior wanted to keep e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, including the china hutch. She measured her new apartment to show it would fit. However, the movers couldn’t get it through the front door. Perhaps it doesn’t fit after all. What else won’t “fit”? We move into a house and we make it a home.
What’s really important to your senior? It’s probably not the kitchen sink or the screen door. Important things, like photos and mementos, can go anywhere. These can go to the next housing phase. Senior won’t lose the important things: their history.
One family referred to the next phase of housing as a new “home”. Their senior dug in her heels and refused to do anything! The family called for my help. I asked the senior to define the word “home”. She described an early 20th century county old age home! I explained that the last of those had been torn down years ago. I offered her a different option; her own apartment with indoor mail box and a grounds crew to mow and shovel. She was willing to learn more.
How has your senior’s old neighborhood changed? Sometimes they need to see it for themselves. I took my Grandfather out to his front porch. Together we remembered the old neighborhood. He talked about the people who once lived there, the streetcar track, and the horses stabled at the end of the street. Each time I asked him, “Where are they now?” At the end he was silent for a moment. Then he said;”They’re all gone”. I offered that if all the people and horses had left, maybe it was OK for him to move on as well. “I like my front porch!” my Grandfather said emphatically. “You’re right; your next place MUST have a front porch!” I said just as emphatically. Then my grandfather pointed to the two trees in the front yard. “I planted those to shade the house”, he said. “They do a great job”, I told him. “100 years from now, they’ll stand as a testament to your efforts”.
Referring to changes as; the next phase of life, works better than to call it; giving up your home. One of my clients was forced to move when she was robbed at home, twice! Even so, she was very upset about leaving. I took her for lunch and a tour of a senior apartment building. She gazed in awe at the beautiful chandelier in the lobby. She did a double-take when a uniformed waiter asked for our luncheon order. After lunch, we toured several apartments. As we drove back to her house I asked her what she thought. “It looks so nice”, she said, “When can I move?”
Another senior had been a great gardener. He was unhappy about leaving his garden. I contacted a newly-constructed facility and asked about gardening plots. On our tour, they pointed out future space for residents’ gardens. The senior explained that the area had too much shade and offered another part of the yard. Since the plots were not yet set, the staff agreed to consider his idea. He would be their gardening consultant! He moved.
Seniors may see a change of housing as a loss of who they used to be; show them how they keep their interests, their memories and mementos.
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"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.