It has been a year since many restrictions have been put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and social distancing has become the “new normal.”
Social isolation has taken on a new meaning and exacerbated mental and emotional issues due to loneliness as well as social and physical challenges due to being separated from others. Although social distancing has shown to slow the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic has truly opened the eyes of people throughout the U.S. to the negative impact that being separated from family and friends can have on a person’s overall well-being.
What used to be routine in-person visits with elderly family members have been replaced by video chatting and phone calls. And many seniors who are dependent on others for assistance with household chores, daily errands or activities are struggling to cope on their own. It is essential to address the effects that social isolation and loneliness have on seniors — which have been intensified during the pandemic — and reevaluate how we support older adults.
Impacts of social isolation and loneliness
The current environment of social distancing and social isolation has worsened the health challenges that many aging Americans were struggling with before the pandemic began. It’s important to recognize that social isolation and loneliness are social determinants of health (SDoH) — nonclinical factors that have significant influence on a person’s overall health. A National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine study commissioned by the AARP Foundation found that social isolation and loneliness can put people at higher risk of adverse health outcomes such as dementia, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s disease and even death. Older adults are more susceptible to these consequences of loneliness and social isolation due to generally poorer health.
Tips for engaging isolated seniors
Although family members and caregivers often want to devote more time to their aging relatives, the pandemic has made this even more difficult than it was in the past. The need to be socially distant from those who do not live in the same house as them has made it potentially dangerous to visit with older family members in person, as there is a real risk of unknowingly passing along a COVID-19 infection. With this lack of face time brought on by the pandemic, the impacts of social isolation have been worsened, making it more important than ever to find creative ways to engage with those who are isolated and lonely.
We are likely several months away from the world returning to “normal,” but in addition to addressing COVID-19, it’s essential to keep seniors top of mind and find ways to meaningfully engage with them. Depending on how comfortable your elderly family members are with technology, encourage them to try Facetime or Zoom video calls so that you can “see” them more often — even if it is just to exchange small talk. If there is a learning curve to adopting technology, remember that patience is key, and assure them of the value of connecting with family members through video, especially while COVID-related restrictions are still in place. If they are not comfortable using video, phone calls or sending letters are also great options for communication.
During these conversations, be sure to ask how they are feeling — both physically and emotionally. As we enter into the spring and summer months, gauge their comfortability with a socially-distant gathering outside. Any means of communication will foster a sense of connection and closeness, and may help mitigate the negative health effects of loneliness and social isolation.
Supporting seniors with daily activities
While socializing with seniors may help alleviate the health issues that come with loneliness and isolation, seniors also often rely upon family members to help with daily activities such as transportation, grocery shopping, cleaning, cooking, meal prep and driving them to doctor’s appointments. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, relatives may not be able to help out with these activities as they did before the pandemic. If your family is in this situation, consider engaging a qualified assistant who is able to safely visit older adults to help with these essential tasks. With the help of an assistant, you may be able to help improve the quality of life for seniors, and even potentially lower some medical costs down the road. Seniors need support with these necessary tasks now more than ever.
During the pandemic, slowing the spread of the virus has been at the forefront of our minds, but it is also essential to not let the needs of seniors fall by the wayside. By engaging with seniors in new ways, and considering assistants for additional help, seniors will feel genuinely supported during a time when it is easy to feel alone.
Andrew Parker is founder and chief executive officer of Papa.
Manik Bhat is founder and chief executive officer of Healthify.