‘Social distancing does not mean social isolation’
Noelle Fields and Ling Xu, assistant professors in the School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Arlington, believe that social distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic place older adults at higher risks of physical and mental ailments.
The pair specializes in research and education related to older adults and their family caregivers.
“While social distancing may ultimately impact all of us, the negative effect may be greater for older adults who are already at risk for social isolation,” Fields said. “Some in gerontology and other social science fields are calling for ‘physical distancing’ rather than ‘social distancing.’
“The thought is that we can all still remain connected to one another socially, using strategies such as phone calls, video conferencing and even ‘snail mail.’”
There is strong evidence that for older adults, social isolation and loneliness negatively affect mortality and are associated with higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
“With the advent of COVID-19, social isolation is now an ever more pressing public health concern,” Xu said.
In the following Q&A, Fields and Xu provide a few strategies for minimizing social isolation for older adults and their families.
Q: In light of social distancing, how can people best reach out and support their older family members, friends and neighbors?
A: Social distancing does not mean social isolation. We can all still reach out to our older family members, friends and neighbors to make sure they are not feeling socially isolated. You can support your older loved ones through regular or frequent phone calls or messages. Through this regular contact, you can find out if they are running low on necessities and, if possible, you can go to the store for them and leave food and/or supplies at their front doors. You can also set up online grocery delivery if it is available in your area.
Another strategy is to use social media, text message chats and video. You can be creative in doing this. For example, schedule dinners with them over FaceTime, participate in online game nights, plan to watch television shows at the same time and even enroll in remote learning classes or virtual museum tours. Try to mix it up with a variety of methods.
Q: Can you explain the importance of social connection, especially for older adults?
A: Humans are social creatures, and social connections are a fundamental aspect of healthy living. Social connection is very important for older adults because it is one of the key factors related to healthy aging. However, as people age, illness, physical limitations, mobility challenges, changes in living arrangement, inactivity and the death of spouses or beloved friends often become emotionally and socially challenging for older adults and largely affect their social connectedness.
Compared to older adults without social support, individuals who have close connections and relationships in later life are not only more likely to have better physical, mental, and cognitive health, but may also live longer and cope better with their health conditions.
Q: How can people help prepare older adults in their lives to be at home for an extended period?
A: It is critical that the basic needs of these older individuals are being met, and it’s very important to develop a plan to ensure that they can access groceries, medicines and other medical supplies. As a friend or family member, consider setting up a routine where you can help bring them needed food and supplies. If you are unable to help, reach out to local community organizations and places of worship that may have trusted and trained volunteers who are ready to serve in this capacity.
Next, reassure your family member/friend/neighbor that you are here for them to provide support and a listening ear. Let them know that while they should be prepared to remain at home, they are not alone. Encourage them to call, email, text and/or send letters as often as they need to during this time of uncertainty. If possible, you may also need to reach out more than you usually do so that the person does not feel alone.
Q: What are some things to consider for individuals caring for a person with dementia?
A: If you are a dementia caregiver, it is recommended that you not raise the alarm about COVID-19 to the person for whom you are caring. Be careful what you say about the virus in front of the person and consider not watching the news or listening to the radio while they are with you in the room. Keeping a calm and peaceful home environment as much as possible can decrease everyone’s worry, including the person with dementia.
As much as possible, try to keep your usual daily routine, as this can be very reassuring for a person with dementia. Experts also recommend that going outside for fresh air and even taking a walk (while maintaining social distancing) is important for everyone’s health, including the person with dementia. Finally, self-care for dementia caregivers is extremely important, as stress may worsen your own health and well-being. Prioritizing social connections with others during this time of social distancing is one key strategy to decreasing your stress as a caregiver.
Q: What resources are available to older adults and their families?
A: A great place to start is by calling your local Area Agency on Aging. Staff members there can talk with you about topics such as helping with caregiver needs or home-delivered meals, and they may refer you to other community agencies that can meet your specialized needs and concerns. The Alzheimer’s Association also has very useful and timely information on its website related to dementia caregiving and COVID-19. You can also call its free 24/7 helpline at 1-800-272-3900. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Support is available from a variety of state, local and national resources.