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Covid’s Other Silent Killer: Social Isolation

 

Imagine spending day after day in your bedroom, hour upon hour without speaking or communicating with anyone. Occasionally you may be able to try socializing with another who has spent her entire day in the same isolation. Maybe you see your loved ones once a week, through a window. Or perhaps you are able to Skype or FaceTime them on a small screen device, held in place by an aide. Engaging in a live conversation, an actual give and take, seems a luxury, reserved for an unspecified future date… For nearly 1.5 million people in the United States who live in nursing homes1, this is not just a story. This is their new normal.

 

Unbelievably, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, our best solution has been almost complete social isolation for our nation’s most vulnerable population—our beloved elderly. Nursing homes residents who could at least share some time with friends during meals, compete for bingo prizes a few times a week or catch up with their grandkids, have been reduced to sheltering in their rooms almost full-time, so that now when they yearn to hear a warm human voice, many are reduced to turning on the television. Disheartening and tedious to you and to me, but to your 90-something grandmother? This is a slow debilitating grind.

 

From KRIS B. MAMULA, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette July 2: At least one health care administrator and 25-year patient advocate believes the suspension of nursing home visits contributed to the death of his mother-in-law, despite getting excellent care in the long-term care facility where she was living.

Jeff Weinberg of Squirrel Hill said his otherwise healthy mother-in-law, Sarah Steckel, 97, was confused by FaceTime visits and eventually lost interest in living because of the isolation she experienced. “You lose your sense of purpose. You have nothing to look forward to,” said Mr. Weinberg, who called social isolation the second pandemic. “No one is looking at this from a psychological perspective and what it’s doing to people. They’re suffering greatly.”

 

Given the fact that loneliness has many adverse effects on an otherwise physically and mentally healthy person, the consequences for our aging population is devastating. Research has shown that loneliness and general unhappiness in the elderly increases the odds of dementia by 50%; mortality by 20%2. While we do talk about precautions to ward off the physical effects of coronavirus, we tend to ignore the dangers such isolation can lead to, from early onset of depression to mental and physical regression and eventual functional decline, even death.

 

According to Murthy V. Work and the Loneliness Epidemic. Harvard Business Review (Brighton): Loneliness is often stigmatized, trivialized, or ignored, but—with the rapidly growing number of older adults in industrialized countries, the increased likelihood of premature mortality, and the deleterious effects of loneliness that have been identified in animal models and human longitudinal investigations—loneliness is emerging as a public health problem.

 

 

The first step in solving any problem is recognizing it exists. Now we are ready to move forward with new ideas, creative engagements that can be offered remotely or sent to our loved ones where they are.

 

This is what inspired FAM’s ART2GO packaged art lessons—looking for a way we can continue to reach out to our elderly population and show them they still matter, they are important to us—we still care.