The exacerbation of social isolation among the elderly

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COVID-19 has rapidly spread across the nation, leading to the implementation of stringent social distancing guidelines by local and regional authorities. In a desperate effort to limit infection rates, in-person social interactions have been reduced, and many have turned towards indoor hobbies and online platforms to connect with their loved ones.

Still, this solution to mitigate the spread of the virus deeply impacts vulnerable groups. Specifically, social isolation of the elderly population, already deemed a neglected issue, is an exacerbated side effect of the coronavirus pandemic.

With nearly a month having passed since social distancing guidelines were formally announced, it is evident that our elderly are particularly susceptible to the disease caused by the new coronavirus. This widespread knowledge has led to many sources recommending that the younger population limit their contact with those at higher risk. To supplement, many older adults have also self-imposed strict quarantines to protect themselves and their families. In combination with the fact that up to 95 percent of Americans are currently under stay-at-home orders, these recent but necessary changes have led to decreased socialization of older adults.

Based on current COVID-19 models, it is difficult to ascertain the longevity of physical distancing recommendations. As such, we must determine ways to longitudinally engage with the oldest segment of our population in healthy and fulfilling ways while still abiding by proposed disease mitigation guidelines.

Furthermore, our most impacted cohort of elderly citizens are perhaps those who live outside the context of a living community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 11 million Americans over the age of 65 living independently. While this does not necessarily equate to loneliness, the two factors are highly correlated and linked to increased health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, depression, cognitive decline, and even Alzheimer’s Disease. These considerations need to be taken into account when informing the conscientious navigation of the pandemic landscape.

Fortunately, we are in the age of rapid technological advancements and instant communication. With internet access becoming more and more widespread, there is an increased opportunity to engage in intentional communication with those we cannot meet in person. The following proposals may help facilitate this process.

Developing proper infrastructure to help older adults learn to use adaptive digital devices, such as modified smartphones, laptops, and tablets, would vastly improve their ability to stay connected with the world around them while still employing protective measures. While this is possible via how-to books and in-person classes, a myriad of helpful websites exist to serve this exact purpose — such as GCFLearnFree.org and Aging In Place.org.

In addition, the development of a robust telephone-befriending program by individual community leaders may also be beneficial. This tried-and-tested intervention relies on the pairing of younger volunteers with interested adults. Previously shown to have successfully improved subjective wellbeing scores, the non-contact method of promoting social interaction is versatile in its ability to be coordinated locally and implemented broadly.

Outside the scope of device-based interventions, social isolation can also be mitigated using “analog” methods. In addition to hand-written letters, care packages are also emerging as a thoughtful method of communication. Filled with anything from basic necessities to nostalgic foods, hand-crafted baskets serve as a more tangible way to connect among those who are closer. Several neighborhoods have further developed distance-friendly ways of checking in with each other, including CDC-recommended buddy systems, mutual aided efforts, and weekly drive-by patrols. These systems provide a way to continuously monitor others’ wellbeing in a safe and effective manner, leading to greater benefits for those at higher risk.

In the coming months, distinguishing between social distancing and social isolation will be paramount to mitigate feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially among our elderly population. While the evolving COVID-19 situation informs public health guidelines on a daily basis, it is important to take steps that care for every corner of society. And recognizing the needs of our elderly population will ensure we pay attention to one of our most vulnerable segments.

Vismaya Bachu is a medical student. 

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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