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The Catch-22 of Social Distancing Among the Elderly

May 28, 2020

With the coronavirus pandemic raging, skilled nursing facilities were instructed back in March to restrict visitation access for the health and safety of staff and residents. Various governmental bodies have made it clear that given the increased risk of infection facing those 65 and older, it is essential that they be quarantined.

At the same time, it has long been clear that loneliness among the senior population can be as harmful as smoking, and can cause or worsen a wide variety of disorders, including Alzheimer’s, heart disease and cancer. Moreover, it has been concluded that loneliness can lead to mental illness, including depression.

So the challenge in these troubling times is simple to articulate, but difficult to overcome: How can seniors remain socially distant while connected to others?

First, it’s important to recognize that isolation and loneliness, while often used interchangeably, are two different things. Isolation is, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, “the objective state of having few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others.” Loneliness is “a subjective feeling of being isolated,” whether among people or not.

That last point should be emphasized. It is possible that a senior will feel lonely, even in non-pandemic times, while living among other people. A seminal 2012 study of those 60 and over indicated as much. While 43 percent of the respondents felt some degree of loneliness, only 18 percent actually lived by themselves.

In other words, 25 percent of those participating in the survey felt lonely, even though they were around others — a stunning revelation, and an indication that loneliness is often a state of mind, rather than strictly a matter of place.

Of course, the coronavirus has introduced a complicated variable into the mix, and a potentially harmful one at that — the specter of quarantine. Friends, families and skilled nursing facility staff must go the extra mile to keep loved ones feeling connected.

Window visits at skilled nursing facilities, for example, have become commonplace. So, too, are video and audio calls facilitated by phones, tablets and other devices. Seniors are increasingly connecting with loved ones via Zoom, Skype or the iPhone’s FaceTime app. 

In Florida, Brian Lee, executive director of the patient-advocate group Families for Better Care, organized a GoFundMe drive in hopes of purchasing 600 smart devices for nursing-home residents. 

Photographer George Krieger, meanwhile, went the extra mile to make sure he could keep in touch with his father, who resides in a California nursing home. The younger Krieger constructed an elaborate electronic system in his dad’s room featuring a camera and 50-inch video screen, making it possible to videoconference. 

Thankfully, every resident at The Allure Group’s facilities already has access to a Samsung tablet at their bedside installed with PadInMotion technology. While residents tended to use them for entertainment of stress relief before the pandemic, they now use them to conduct audio or video chats with their loved ones. The technology has been instrumental in helping seniors stay connected during these difficult times.

Though many group activities have been interrupted, it is still possible for skilled nursing facilities to keep their residents’ spirits up in a more socially-distanced fashion. McKnight’s detailed a number of strategies being incorporated by SNFs across the country, including theme dress-up days, food incentives, and playing music in hallways and common areas. At The Allure Group’s facilities in particular, we’ve seen thoughtful letters from staff and loved ones bring cheery smiles to the faces of our residents. 

There is no question this is a uniquely challenging time, both for the elderly and for the staff and loved ones who care for them. But it is possible to walk a fine line and keep seniors both safe and connected. Creativity and compassion (and a dash of technology) can go a long way.

Categories: General