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Social Isolation + COVID: A Disaster Combination for Seniors

For the last year, we’ve been forced to isolate ourselves from family and friends to slow the spread of COVID-19. Nursing homes across the country banned visitors to protect residents’ physical health. 

There are reasons for this. As of the end of last year, about 100,000 nursing home residents and staff had died from COVID-19.

But scientists are saying the approach has been a double-edged sword. In a letter published in the July/August 2020 issue of Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, a group of researchers outlined the risks of continued isolation on the elderly. 

“Desperate times require desperate measures – but prolonged desperate times require step by step a holistic approach including risk-management of both acute and chronic threats and the maintenance of dignity at the end of life,” the letter read.

Even seniors who live alone in their homes are at a higher risk for adverse side effects, including anxiety and premature mortality.

Let’s delve deeper into the issues with prolonged social isolation. We’ll also discuss ways you and your loved ones can cope together, even while apart.

Effects of Social Isolation

Social isolation has been difficult on many, regardless of age. However, some nursing home residents weren’t allowed to go outside or take a socially-distance walk or ride in a park. Instead, they had to stay in their rooms for months. This separation can lead to anxiety and emotional distress, and research shows the consequences can be deadly. A 2006 study found that high anxiety was associated with an increased chance of premature death in persons over 75 years old. In 2004, researchers found anxiety heightened the risk of death in men ages 55 to 85 years old.

Aside from the very real emotional toll, loneliness and isolation can is linked to a higher likelihood of diseases. The CDC warns that poor social relationships are associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.

In their letter, the scientists pointed to a review that showed people who lived alone were 32 percent more likely to have an increased risk of mortality. The same review suggested those experiencing social isolation were more likely to have vascular and neurological diseases.    

Social isolation is also associated with higher likelihoods of cognitive impairment, which heightens the chance someone will develop Alzheimer’s disease. If a person already has Alzheimer’s, seclusion may accelerate the disease’s progression.  Families of nursing home residents have experienced watching their loved ones deteriorate from afar.

“Mom’s just not there,” Deanna Williams told the New York Times last fall. Williams’ 89-year-old mother, Peggy Walsh, has dementia and is a resident of Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., the site of the nation’s first known COVID-19 outbreak.

Finally, physical activity is essential to a person’s quality of life. Research shows moving around typically improves the mental health, functional capacity, vitality and mortality rate in people 60 of age and older. Leaving your room to walk around a facility or meeting up with friends for a stroll are opportunities for this type of physical activity. For many seniors, COVID-19’s stay-at-home orders and restrictions made getting exercise harder, if not impossible.

How to Manage Social Isolation During COVID-19

As the pandemic drags on, it’s exacerbating the dangers associated with social isolation. If you’re feeling the effects of quarantine, it’s important to know you are not alone and your feelings are valid. There is also help available. Here are a few steps you can take to try to make changes, ranging from lifestyle tweaks to advocacy. 

  • Weigh the risks and benefits: COVID-19 is dangerous, and age increases your risk of getting seriously ill or dying from the disease. About 178,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States have been people 65 years old and older, according to CDC data. However, if isolation is causing you to physically and mentally decline, you might consider forming a pod with a few people who agree to take similar safety measures, such as only leaving the house for essential errands. You could meet outside for socially-distant walks and wear masks. This option is more available to those not in a long-term care facility, who are subject to stricter restrictions. 
  • Talk to someone. Many therapists are offering telehealth services. Speaking with one about your feelings can help you feel heard and develop coping strategies.
  • Sign up for a virtual group activity. Participating in social groups like choirs may help, according to a small 2018 study of older adults. Though in-person choirs aren’t the safest activity right now, you may be able to sign up for a virtual book club or support group. 
  • Advocate. In their letter, scientists urged nursing home administrators and government officials to allow residents to leave their rooms and go for a walk in the garden. They also pushed for “visit plans” that included a reduced flow of visitors and established hygienic standards. The scientists called for special attention to be paid to the dying and for relatives to be allowed to be a part of the end-of-life process. You can write and call your governor’s office to advocate for these changes if you or a loved one is suffering.

COVID-19 has caused a public health crisis. But that crisis has also impacted people emotionally, and there are physical ramifications of anxiety and loneliness. It’s important to know that, even now, you and your loved ones are not alone. Finding ways to work in safe socialization, either over Zoom or socially-distanced walks outside, and advocating for relatives in long-term care facilities may help.

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