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.
"A Senior Moment" is written by Ms. Sara Lieber, owner of Senior Sidekicks. Ms. Lieber has over 30 years of experience in senior care.