Senior Citizens Face Double-Edged Sword of COVID-19

Senior Citizens Face Double-Edged Sword of COVID-19

August 18, 2020

Mary Gilliam, MBA, LNHA

            We’ve now had several months experience with COVID-19 and it’s become abundantly clear that senior citizens are the ones most at risk.  This is especially true for seniors with underlying health issues, such as serious heart conditions, lung disease, or a compromised immune system.  The relatively high COVID-19 infection and death rates among seniors is well documented and won’t be repeated here.  Instead, I’d like to focus on a less discussed risk associated with medical quarantine, a practice that is touted as the first line of defense when protecting this most vulnerable segment of our population.

Some argue that it makes intuitive sense to quarantine our vulnerable senior citizens from younger folks who may be infected with COVID-19 and capable of infecting others even though they, themselves, are completely asymptomatic.  Problems arise, however, if this medical quarantine turns into social isolation.

Social isolation comes with its own risks.  Seniors who are isolated from others in the community – whether it be at home or in a health care facility – risk succumbing to stress and depression which, in turn, can adversely affect the immune system.  Social isolation among seniors can increase disorientation and the risk of falls.  Isolation can reduce physical activity and that can lead to dehydration, along with urinary tract infection.  Social isolation can contribute to a solitary lifestyle that can reduce the level of mental stimulation and thereby increase the risk of dementia.  None of this is good for the seniors we are trying so hard to protect.

How do we keep a medical quarantine of our senior citizens from devolving into a form of social isolation?

For seniors who live in a health care community, we need to provide additional opportunities for increased social interaction.  This could include bingo over an audio system, outdoor walking groups, pen pal letters, and social distancing meals with a friend instead of eating alone in his or her room.

For seniors who live at home, we need to find creative ways to promote more social interaction and meaningful engagement.  Grandchildren can play outside so grandparents can see and physically interact with them.  Perhaps you can teach the seniors in your life to use FaceTime so they can stay connected to the family by watching important family activities, such as playtime with the grandchildren, family supper, and evening prayers before bedtime.  They might even be encouraged to engage in social activity via FaceTime with their friends in the senior community.  Essential caregivers can not only provide care, but also reduce isolation with social interaction.

As states continue to re-open their economies, there undoubtedly will be an increasingly greater amount of social interaction and an increase of COVID-19 infections among those whose health will be relatively unaffected by the disease.  All the more reason to protect our vulnerable senior citizens.  Let’s just re-double our efforts to ensure that medical quarantine doesn’t devolve into social isolation.