Older adults are facing dual public health emergencies

This article, by of the University of Maine, was originally published on the Bangor Daily News opinion page on April 21, 2020.

Diana Sylvain | Diana Sylvain
Alban Bouchard of Fort Kent visited his wife of more than 60 years, Rita Bouchard on her birthday at Crosswinds Residential Care on Thursday. The couple spent time together through a window to protect Rita and other residents at the center from the threat of coronavirus COVID-19.

By now we all know that adults 60 years and older are at heightened risk of serious, if not fatal, health consequences in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for those with chronic health conditions and compromised immune systems. As a recent report of the American Red Cross and the American Academy of Nursing reminds us, older adults consistently experience the greatest proportion of casualties as a result of all variety of public emergencies and natural disasters compared to younger age groups.

In response to worsening COVID-19 conditions, federal and state stay-at-home orders and guidelines will better ensure that older adults avoid those situations that might expose them to this potentially life-threatening viral disease. This has been a necessary protective measure. However, as a result, older adults are now: confined to their homes often without sons and daughters and friends visiting as they normally would have; not able to receive visitors if they reside in long-term care facilities; not attending luncheon and social programs normally offered at senior and community centers; and not functioning as volunteers as they had been in their local communities as part of a busy social life.

The social distancing edict is really a physical distancing requirement but has, unfortunately, been equated with a social, if not emotional, disconnection mandate in the eyes of too many. The result is that a second pandemic has reared its ugly head — reflected in dramatically increased numbers of older adults living dangerously isolated and lonely lives in the community and in long-term care settings because of the loss of meaningful social contact with loved ones, friends and others.

Even before the novel coronavirus outbreak, Americans were found to be living more isolated lives than ever before with as many as 43% of adults 60 years of age and older in the U.S. reporting feeling lonely. The negative consequences of isolation and loneliness, especially for older adults, are not to be taken lightly. Living an isolated life has been likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is associated with heightened levels of psychological distress and a greater risk of being abused, neglected and exploited, hospitalized, and falling, and having reduced access to critical health and social support services. Isolated and lonely older adults exhibit significantly higher illness and death rates than the general population. Social isolation among older adults has major cost implications as well. It has been associated with $6.7 billion in additional federal Medicare spending annually.

During this time of physical distancing, we need to do everything in our power to ensure that a second pandemic, that of widespread isolation and loneliness among our older citizens, does not reach epidemic proportions unaddressed. Physical distancing need not negate our capacity to maintain social and emotional connectedness with those we love and care about. For those older adults with access to the internet, teleconferencing and other forms of remote socializing should be encouraged. This can include using online neighborhood-based applications connecting you with nearby neighbors; co-learning opportunities with students; recording virtual performances and sharing them with others; informal conversations via video chatting; and pre-recorded digital video messages shared by those who can no longer personally visit each other.

Old-fashioned telephone check-ins and daily chats represent a second line of defense that can be undertaken with virtually all older Mainers. Grocery shopping deliveries, care packages, letters, and notes left at the front door or mailed to older residents represent still another option. Ensuring older adults are aware of essential community services that remain open and available like their local Area Agency on Aging and home-delivered meals programs is critical.

Additional ideas for maintaining social connectedness with isolated older adults are being offered through a number of well-informed outlets including The Coalition to End Social Isolation & Loneliness and AARP. Sustaining any and all avenues for expressions of caring, concern and social support, especially during times of crisis, such as the one we are now experiencing, is critical for preserving the health, safety, and well-being of older Mainers.

Lenard W. Kaye is a professor of social work and director of the Center on Aging at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

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