With COVID-19 looming all around us, many have taken to isolating themselves and their families away from the rest of the world. In the United States, over 42 governors have ordered a Shelter-in-Place, or Stay at Home, order, further limiting the amount of interaction that U.S. citizens have with each other in hopes that social distancing will help flatten the curve of the virus. While some have taken to hunkering down together, there is a population that is left out and for which isolation may be detrimental.
It is now well known that the elderly population are one of the most at risk populations for COVID-19.
The self-isolation for this population is vital to protect them from any risk and to help keep the healthcare system from being overburdened. Though self-isolation is for the safety and preservation of the elderly, it can lead not only to harmful physical health consequences, but also mental health consequences.
Social distancing, in its most overarching definition, means to only socialize with those in your household, meaning that there is limited contact, if any, with members outside of the household. The elderly population that lives alone, then, will have extremely limited contact with family members or friends. Those in this population will lose their outside support system, such as community centers and places of worship, on top of their contact with family. This loss of contact and support is why it is vital to ensure that the elderly as staying socially engaged while they are social distancing.
Practice social and physical distancing, but not complete social isolation
It is important to note that social distancing means physical distance, not social. Keeping a distance (a recommended six feet) allows the chance of contracting the virus to be lowered, but it does not mean to throw away all social aspects. Encourage the elderly to say hi to their mail man or grocery delivery person from their porch, keeping their distance but still allowing them to receive that human socialization. If not physically seeing a family member is very difficult for an elderly person, a drive by and quick conversation from the car can help satisfy that craving.
Technology may be the biggest opportunity to help keep the elderlies social contact up, helping to eliminate the mental health repercussions of total isolation. There is so much that an elderly person can utilize technology for. Many places of worship are now streaming their services online, making it so that anyone with internet access can watch their worship services. There is also the opportunity to text, allowing there to be instant contact between the elderly and their family and friends.
Phone calls allow the elderly to hear the voices of their family and friends, while giving them the ability to physical talk to someone. FaceTime, Skype, or Zoom are all services that, like phone calls, allow the elderly to call others and psychically talk to the, but it also adds the element of being able to see the other person(s). This is the closest that the elderly may get to being able to see family and friends during this time. Taking the opportunity to utilize FaceTime or Zoom permits one to feel as if they are with their loved ones while still practicing social distancing.
It is easy to sit on the couch and watch T.V. all day, especially when one feels lonely and struggling with self-isolation. Keeping active is a way to combat this version of non-activity and to reduce the mental health effects of self-isolation. Having elderly family members engage in a puzzle or organizing old pictures is a low-impact way to keep them moving and focusing on something other than the news and their feelings of isolation.
If your loved one is able, making dinner or baking is another way to keep active. Working outside, especially as the weather becomes nicer, gives the elderly a way to get out of the house and soaking in some sun, which is another way to combat mental health effects from social-isolation. Even sitting outside is a simple way to keep active and not feel as if one is stuck in the house. One other idea to keep active includes, again if they are able, is to utilize another aspect of technology; using YouTube to stream workout videos that an elderly person is capable of doing, even if it is from a chair.
Taking care of one’s mental health during a time such as this, is an important aspect of keeping oneself healthy. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine executed emergency rules to both expand and enhance the telehealth options available for Ohioans. The new, relaxed regulations permit more people to be served in their homes under the Ohio Stay at Home Order. Telehealth is an option for counseling directly in one’s home. This option not only helps with counseling services directed at caring for mental health, but is also another way to have social contact with another person. This is an option for all populations alike.
There are a million different ways to keep elderly family members engaged during this time of isolation. Utilizing technology, keeping them active and working with a telehealth provider are all options to help keep them engaged and healthy during this time. Keeping elderly family members engaged and reminding them that they are not alone will help the time of self-isolation past more quickly. Keep these family members up to date with what is happening with their family and encourage them to get outside and moving if at all possible. It is the physical distance that matters, not social-isolation.