Loneliness has been hitting Americans harder than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges and issues to people of all ages, leaving portions of the country under lockdown with heavy restrictions to slow the spread of the virus. No group has been harder hit than seniors. This vulnerable population is now dealing with issues that they never imagined would happen. Will a walk around the block result in serious illness? Will a trip to the grocery store end in hospitalization? Will hugging a grandchild lead to SARS-CoV-2 infection? Everyday tasks that a senior could easily accomplish pre-coronavirus can now seem to be a matter of life or death.
Compounding the practical impediments to regular functioning in the senior population is loneliness. Visits from family and friends virtually ceased, and seniors could no longer attend birthdays, weddings and other important celebrations. A daily walk became a dangerous activity, limiting seniors’ access to sunlight and vitamin D. The isolation felt by the world has been the hardest for homebound seniors, who may not have the technological skills to navigate the video calling services used to connect with others virtually.
Loneliness is not just an emotional concern; it physically impacts seniors’ health. Chronic loneliness can shorten one’s life span by as much as 20 years, accelerating dementia, anxiety and problems with physical health. Loneliness also has a negative impact on seniors’ immune systems, increasing inflammation and decreasing antiviral activity, making them more vulnerable to illness in general and to COVID-19 in particular. In terms of mental health, loneliness is associated with depression and psychological distress. Unfortunately, seniors have the highest suicide rate of any age group, comprising almost 1 in 5 suicides. Isolation compounded by the pandemic can be a catalyst for depression, making loneliness a real threat to seniors’ well-being.
A Case Study
Here’s one example. Six weeks after Oasis Day Center shut down under the public health emergency, one of our senior clients gave us a call. With no family nearby and no homecare aides, he had seen almost no one since he was last at the center. Visiting him brought a shock; the six weeks alone left him looking like he aged a decade. Speaking to us from his porch, he told us spending time without others was definitely taking its toll.
This particular client didn’t have routine home health visitors, so his contact with others was very minimal; even those who do get visits by clinicians and caregivers may go months without seeing family and friends. Unfortunately, depressed and lonely clients can be harder to work with than their happier counterparts, as some depressed seniors lose motivation to be physically active or keep up with their medication regimens. This is where adult day cares and homecare providers can work hand in hand.
A Possible Solution
Noting that our isolated client was having trouble navigating a new, virtual world, we helped connect him to a home health aide. Other aides—who can be a senior’s eyes and ears and a trusted guardian and friend—have been increasingly calling us to arrange social calls with their clients. Adult day cares are leading the way in keeping older adults connected, with many centers delivering meals and activity kits and arranging daily calls and social teleconferencing. By bringing the social aspect of the day care to seniors in their homes, we are working together with our partners in homecare to alleviate the epidemic of loneliness that is impacting seniors. And because the coronavirus pandemic has been financially difficult for many Americans, adult day cares have been working to ensure that seniors and their families are aware of the full range of government benefits they are entitled to, particularly now.
I predict that, even if the virus passes, the role of adult day cares will grow in importance. As families become more reluctant to send their elderly members to nursing homes, aging in place is becoming an increasingly attractive—and safer—option for seniors. Day care has the ability to engage seniors with either in-person or virtual programming, which is helpful for alleviating loneliness. For seniors living with their families, day care can provide a source of quality interaction with peers and medical experts while adult children are occupied working from home.
Furthermore, seniors are hospitalized less frequently when they are in a care environment, and adult day care is one of the easiest ways to create that environment while allowing people to remain in their homes longer while remaining safe and engaged. Leaders in the adult day care industry understand the significance of this service, and are working with elected officials and insurance providers to ensure that adult day care becomes accessible for all seniors that are interested.
With the stakes of the loneliness epidemic so high, we can’t afford to let our most vulnerable population feel isolated and alone. Working together, homecare providers and adult day care centers can ensure that our elderly can peacefully and comfortably age in place.