In the U.S., states are issuing ‘stay at home’ directives. For a large percentage of older people … [+]
In this time of coronavirus and COVID-19, social distancing has changed lives. Italy, hardest hit by COVID-19, reported nearly 800 deaths yesterday and saw its toll for the past month reach 4,825, the highest in the world. In the U.S., states are issuing directives for people to stay home.
Those who share a domicile at least have each other. But many older people live alone, and social isolation can lead to loneliness, depression, and increase physical vulnerability. About 34 percent of women and 20 percent of men over 65 years of age live alone, according to a 2017 profile of older U.S. Americans published by the U.S. Department of Health and Services. For women age 75 and over, almost half live alone.
Mental health is intricately tied to physical well-being. As such, it will be important to proactively consider and prioritize the importance of social connections with older people in isolation through non-physical means.
“We need to thoughtfully balance both safety and overall well-being,” says Dr. Asaf Bitton, an assistant professor of medicine at the Division of General Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of health care policy at the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School. “A comprehensive approach is needed to address the disproportionate effects that safety measures have on the well-being of those who may be more vulnerable and isolated, including (but not limited to) older adults. Approaching this challenging array of issues with empathy and curiosity on what those most affected by these isolating measures will experience is critical. We need to try to understand this from their perspective, and hear their voices to tell us what they need.”
In response, initiatives are being deployed both nationally and through grassroots efforts. AARP has beta-launched Mutual Aid, where individuals can join or start groups to support those who feel isolated. Across the country, people are informally organizing new online mutual aid groups to stay connected, share ideas, and help those most affected by the coronavirus. Some communities are using Nextdoor and Meetup as ways to offer support.
“Older adults are not a homogeneous group,” reminds Dr. Bitton. “They are an incredibly varied array of individuals with different values and things that bring their lives meaning and purpose. We need to engage older adults to understand and identify their priorities and needs and develop tailored approaches that mobilize families, communities, social organizations, commercial businesses, healthcare organizations, and government response aimed at lessening the effect of physical distancing on people’s lives.”
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented responses. Social distancing and isolation are current options for slowing the trajectory of coronavirus transmission and COVID-19 mortality, as Dr. Bitton shares through Ariadne Labs, where he also serves as executive director.
As difficult as this experience may be, Dr. Bitton suggests it may provide an opportunity to strengthen generational ties.
“Our society has an important opportunity to learn from those among us with the most life experience. And far from ignoring them, I think younger generations are doing their part to reach out, support and help their elders continue to flourish. In many ways, this crisis may serve to deepen connections between generations and across communities.”