Dangers of Elderly Isolation Due to COVID-19
Justin Davis has not seen his 92-year-old grandmother since February because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. The Nashville, Tennessee resident said he normally visits his only living grandmother at different times throughout the year and spends holidays with her.
Sadly, Davis said he won’t be enjoying the holidays with his grandmother this year because he does not want to place her at risk for getting COVID-19.
Family members, like Davis, want to see their elderly loved ones during the winter holidays but do not want to potentially expose them to the dreaded virus that has kept many seniors in social isolation for most of 2020.
Public health officials say adults 65 years old and older and people with certain health conditions are at a higher risk than the general population for severe illness with COVID-19. Because of this, health experts advise people to limit—or avoid—visits with those who are most vulnerable to developing serious consequences from the disease.
Social Isolation Can Lead to Physical Illness
Mental health experts warn that seniors who remain in social isolation for long periods of time have a greater risk of developing serious physical problems. What’s more, the risk is higher for older adults who do not have family support or close friends nearby.
Humans are “social creatures” and are designed to have contact with each other, said Dr. William Petrie, a professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences who directs the outpatient geriatric psychiatry at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Petrie noted that scientific studies have compared the effects of prolonged isolation to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day—both carry health risks. So, a prolonged social isolation period due to COVID-19 can increase an older adult’s sense of loneliness and mortality rate. Petrie said he has had an increased death rate because of social isolation due to the pandemic.
Social Isolation Can Lead to Depression
Older adults who are socially isolated are at a higher risk for depression, which is a common problem for seniors but is not a normal part of aging, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIOA).
Important life changes can trigger depression in seniors, such as the death of a spouse or lifelong friend, the diagnosis of a serious illness, or adult children moving away. While some older adults can bounce back from different life changes, some do not.
The NIOA notes that older adults exhibit different depressive symptoms than younger people, which is one reason why depression sometimes goes unrecognized in seniors. Rather than feeling sad, a common symptom of depression, older adults may have trouble sleeping, feel tired or seem grumpy and irritable, according to the NIOA.
It’s common for the holiday season to add to the misery. But, with COVID-19 and some local governments issuing another round of stay-at-home orders, health experts worry that loneliness and sickness among seniors may increase this winter.
Seniors Creating “COVID Bubbles”
Older adults understand the seriousness of COVID-19, but they miss having in-person companionship during the pandemic. So, some seniors are forming what they call, “bubbles” or “pods,” which are small groups that meet virtually or in person but agree on taking pandemic precautions. Seniors created the COVID pods or bubbles to fend off isolation during the upcoming winter months. In most instances, the seniors know where each person in the group goes and what they do to make sure that they are being safe.
Julia Freestone, 75, said the term, “bubbles” needs to be redefined as something that people feel a part of, but it does not have to be people coming into your house. For example, Freestone said she and her 74-year-old husband, Rudi Raab, had six friends over for a “Thanksgiving in October” in their backyard in Richmond, California.
Joan Doucette, 82, and her 84-year-old husband, Harry Fisher, formed a pod with two other couples in their apartment in Boston, Massachusetts. The couples are members of Beacon Hill Village, an organization that provides various services to seniors aging in place.
Doucette said she and her pod members go up and down the stairs or in the elevator to bring each other cookies or soup. Doucette said she does not believe that she could have survived the pandemic without companionship from her pod members.
Similarly, Freestone is on the board of Ashby Village, a Berkeley, California-based organization for seniors aging in place. The organization hosts virtual groups, and Freestone is part of a monthly women’s group that meets over Zoom.
A recurring discussion at the virtual meeting are the different types of issues brought on by the pandemic, she said. By sharing these concerns, Freestone feels the group has reached a new level of intimacy.
While Zoom and FaceTime, another way to video chat with others, are good for some seniors, many older adults do not feel comfortable using technology, said Petrie. Without technology and other forms of social support, many seniors will be alone during the holidays because of COVID-19.
Davis said he knows that his grandmother would like to see her grandchildren over the holidays. But, unless “something major changes,” which is not likely, Davis believes his grandmother will stay home.