COVID-related loneliness is real, and is affecting our seniors disproportionately. At baseline, many of our seniors feel isolated and have insufficient social interaction. Add to that policies and efforts to protect them, plus the very real fear of contracting COVID, and you have unprecedented social isolation for our seniors.
This is more than just sad. This is a health risk to our elderly.
Studies have shown that chronic loneliness can lead to memory decline, anxiety, depression, and other adverse health effects.
So, how do we protect our seniors this holiday season, while still including them in a meaningful way in celebrations? There are many, many ideas available for engaging seniors during a pandemic. Here is one such list, from Home Instead, but there are many others if you do a little searching. Aside from these more general approaches, I would like to specifically address in-person gatherings.
If you are considering an in-person gathering that includes one or more seniors or others at high risk of COVID, consider this guidance from the CDC. TL/DR:
No one with any symptoms may attend
Maintain social distance of at least 6 feet
Wear a mask when around people that don't live in your household
No hugs or handshaking
No singing, chanting, or shouting
Use hand sanitizer frequently
Use disposable plates and utensils
Now, I don't know about you, but that doesn't sound like a lot of fun to me. So, with COVID cases on the rise in Central Oregon, perhaps it is best to include our most vulnerable members in the holiday celebration in other ways:
Set your senior loved ones up to participate virtually via video chat.
Set up a webcam to capture the action, and help your relative project the feed to their television, so they can see it on the "big screen."
If you plan far enough in advance, you can "pre-quarantine" for the 14 days leading up to the gathering, but everyone attending will have to do the same. This will reduce transmission risk, but is not foolproof.
Aside from managing gatherings, our vulnerable, isolated seniors need us to pay attention during this season. How will you know your loved one is struggling? Here are some clues to watch out for:
Weight loss: this could signal illness, depression, or difficulty following cooking directions if the memory is declining. If this is the case, they may not be eating regularly.
Skipping or forgetting medications
A messy living space, especially if they are typically tidy.
Loss of interest in things they usually enjoy
Missing or overpaying bills
Not keeping in touch with friends or family
An excellent resource for seniors is the Friendship Line (800-971-0016), which is maintained by the Institute on Aging, and is the only accredited 24/7 crisis line for people older than 60. More than just a crisis line, they keep in touch with the seniors who reach out to them. Please share this resource with seniors in your life.
You can learn more about the Friendship Line here.
The bottom line is that we need to protect our seniors and at the same time find a way to include them in celebrations. It won't be easy, but nothing is easy right now. Get creative. It will make all the difference to our senior loved ones.