Contrasting Concerns for Older Adults: Virus and Isolation Both Carry Risks

With the outbreak of coronavirus, health and government directives for strict social distancing create a dilemma for older adults and those who care for them.
With the outbreak of coronavirus, health and government directives for strict social distancing create a dilemma for older adults and those who care for them.

What can older adults and those who love them do, when isolation from COVID-19 and the need for socialization come into conflict? Though we know that socialization plays a role in everyone’s health, no matter the age, it is particularly essential for older adults, whose wellbeing is so dependent on the stimulus they receive through social interactions. 


Susan Bradley-Meyer, Director of Senior Adult Services for the Mayerson JCC, recently shared why she’s such a strong advocate for this message. “Studies have shown that socialization among seniors has a positive effect on cognitive abilities—a good sign in the fight against Alzheimer’s and other dementias,” she said. “Interpersonal relationships are often the most important part of a person’s life, and the mental stimulation they provide never gets old.”


Unfortunately, with the outbreak of coronavirus, health and government directives for strict social distancing create a dilemma for older adults and those who care for them. On one hand, our older population is more likely to suffer the worst physical effects of this virus, so they stand to benefit the most from social distancing initiatives. On the other hand, older adults are more likely to suffer the worst mental and emotional effects of social distancing, so they stand to be harmed the most by these initiatives. “Just as socialization can keep older adults healthy, the lack of it can cause a negative impact on their health,” Bradley-Meyer said. 


Ann Sutton Burke, Vice President of Client Services at Jewish Family Service (JFS), worries that one epidemic may lead to another. “At JFS, we became interested in social isolation among older adults as a public health issue back in 2018, as part of the Jewish community’s Aging 2.0 Task Force. Now in the midst of a pandemic, we are in a state of hyper-awareness as more older adults than ever are at risk for isolation and loneliness. Research shows that loneliness can be worse than obesity, alcoholism, or smoking. We consider it our epidemic.”


Burke is quick to stress what she thinks is the most basic point of all. “When the world seems upside down like it is now, don’t change what you don’t have to change. Exercise. Eat well. Read books. Make phone calls. Get good quality sleep. These routines are even more vital today than they were before the virus. So for older adults—and the loved ones who care for them—I am trying to emphasize how important it is to stick with those fundamental habits.”


The problems of isolation are further exacerbated by another challenge: the tools best suited for combatting isolation—Zoom, FaceTime, and Skype, used on phones, computers, and tablets, are those with which older adults are least familiar and feel the least comfortable using. As a result, many people who could remain in close contact with friends and family during this pandemic will not be able to do that because of technological limitations.


AgeWell Cincinnati Director June Ridgway is, like Burke, deeply concerned about the potential short- and long-term impacts this pandemic could have on individuals vulnerable to social isolation. However, she also believes in the power of information—specifically information that is readily available. “The resources are out there,” she said. “People simply need a little help when it comes to knowing where to look. Often enough, they don’t even have to search beyond our own community to find these resources.” 


One example of available information Ridgway is excited about is the community COVID-19 Hotline, which she and her AgeWell Cincinnati staff help to manage. “Through the hotline, older adults, as well as people of all ages, can be connected to a wide range of virtual resources, many designed to boost socialization,” she said. “There is even an online form that connects people to a ‘tech buddy’ to help bring down those barriers to technology,” she added.


Ridgway then pointed to community websites filled with wonderful and unexpected ways to keep people engaged during this period of social distancing. From The Metropolitan Opera’s nightly livestream of great performances to free online books for children, to improving Mahjong skills with Master Qwan, a myriad of virtual experiences are easily accessible online. In fact, the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati and Jewish Family Service of Cincinnati both have website pages devoted to helping people stay connected during this health crisis.