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Thriving, not just surviving: Don’t let pandemic exacerbate seniors’ social isolation

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Courtesy of Greg Hartwell
Sheltering in place has presented time and the impetus for extended families to reconnect virtually, and – after the lockdown is lifted – hopefully reverse the trend of social isolation for older adults.

We are now a couple of months into the pandemic crisis, and it’s pretty clear that unless you live on a remote island in the Pacific, the virus has affected your “normal” way of life in significant ways, from the devastating to the merely annoying.

The death toll approaching 100,000 is substantial, but when compared with the 30 million people unemployed and millions of small businesses closed that may never reopen, you get the sense that this crisis is as far-reaching as anything we’ve experienced since World War II on a widespread individual and family basis. The pain is being felt more acutely by service-sector employees, the self-employed, small businesses and, from a mortality perspective, seniors, minorities and those with obesity and comorbidity conditions.

The one phenomenon, however, we are all universally experiencing is the unnatural sequestering from the sheltering-in-place and social-distancing rules enacted across the country. The first several weeks of the shutdown felt as surreal as an episode of Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone.” Surely the bad dream would end and life would resume as it always had. But as we enter the third month of the lockdown, I find myself still wondering if this is real or if I am living in a dream. I check the news sites a few times a day, hoping for a headline that will assure me that a cure has been found and it will all be over soon. I share the persistent refrain of my friends, which is for life to finally return to “normal.”

Social distancing by another name

The terms “sheltering-in-place” and “social distancing” were never part of our common language before March. Now, they are all too familiar. Having spent the past decade working with seniors as the founder of an organization that provides caregivers to enable older adults to live at home as they age, the concepts of sheltering-in-place and social distancing are familiar, but have long gone by a different name: social isolation. They are, unfortunately, a normal part of life for millions of seniors across our country.

Unlike sudden orders handed down by the government, social isolation creeps into older adults’ lives over the course of many years. It can be precipitated by the death of a spouse, close friend or other significant loss, but loneliness and isolation tend to happen gradually over time. It can start as early as our late 60s as friends retire and move away. It generally accelerates in our 70s as close friends and loved ones pass away more frequently. Young grandchildren grow up, go to college, start their careers and visit less often.

Greater isolation leads to greater loneliness, which leads to depression – often undiagnosed and untreated – which can lead to further withdrawal from friends, family and outside activities. Medical problems lead to less physical mobility, which leads to less exercise, sports, recreation and hobbies with others, which further leads to isolation from others.

Indeed, Dr. Stephen Cole, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at UCLA, said that “loneliness acts as the fertilizer for other diseases,” which ultimately leads to premature aging, compromised quality and ultimately quantity of life.

A silver lining in every cloud

Human beings need each other, and social interaction is crucial to thriving. If this shutdown has taught me one thing, it’s that my family, friends and community mean more to me than any material possessions I own, my career or any personal achievements.

I’ve had more intimate conversations with friends on walks than I’ve had in 20 years of knowing them. I’ve grown closer to my three siblings, one of whose business is on the verge of bankruptcy due to the shutdown. We’ve initiated Sunday video calls that would never have happened if not for the crisis. My young adult children are home unexpectedly and we’re enjoying those evening sit-down dinners that always eluded us when they were in high school.

I’ve seen the same with my senior clients’ adult children, who are once again getting involved in their lives, visiting more often, doing video calls with the grown grandkids who are now home from college and spending less time self-indulgently. All of their lives have slowed down – vacations canceled, jobs interrupted, commutes temporarily commuted.

As the owner of a home care agency, I realize we serve seniors and their families. The family unit is what matters. Helping to be a catalyst for that family involvement with their elderly parents and seniors interacting with the surrounding community has always been important, but now more than ever it will be an increased focus.

For too many seniors, sheltering in place and social distancing are the norm, and once the crisis is over that won’t change unless we make a concerted effort to make it change. Perhaps before our lives “go back to normal” and while we still have the time, we can ask ourselves if there is a senior we could reach out to and schedule a regular visit or treat to a meal delivery from a local restaurant. Or could we schedule a Zoom call with our grandparents, regardless of where they live, to join us via laptop for Sunday dinner by setting them a place at the table. Now that the weather is nice, we could eat dinner outside and remain at a distance.

Temporary physical distancing was the intent of the rules. Social distancing was not. This crisis may be just the thing that gives us the empathy to walk in the shoes of our elders and nudge us to find creative ways to bring them back into our normal healthy lives where close personal interactions keep us healthy and thriving.

Greg Hartwell is founder and managing director of the Los Altos-based Homecare California. For more information, call 324-2600, ext. 105, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or visit homecare-california.com.

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