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April 29, 2020

By Jean Scholz Mellum, PhD, RN, NEA-BC, Assistant Professor of Nursing, and Kathy Fernandez, PhD, RN-BC, AHN-BC, Assistant Professor of Nursing

Social Isolation and Older Adults

A simple phone call can offer a lifeline to our older-but-bolder population.

This would have marked the fifth consecutive year that Capital hosted the Older but Bolder Symposium for the self-defined population of older people in the Central Ohio area. We were saddened to have to cancel the event, but so glad to have prevented potentially sharing a nasty virus with those who may be least resistant to the negative effects of COVID-19.

This year’s symposium was expected to have 150 people interested in boldly advancing their health and wellness by learning about brain health, music and movement, the role of humor in aging, and much more.

While this pandemic disrupted our plans, the virus also brought to light an issue that has been gaining attention in the population of those people in decades after 60 or 70: social isolation.

Because the coronavirus has more serious consequences for older adults, especially older adults with one or more chronic health conditions, people have isolated themselves to decrease their risk. Furthermore, many of the activities that older adults usually participate in are no longer happening, such as attending church; social outings with friends; and volunteering at food pantries, children’s hospitals, and other nonprofit organizations.

On top of these limitations, these older-but-bolder consumers may be isolating themselves from their families and children – a real whammy to well-being.

Even in good times, isolation for older adults can have deleterious effects. The National Academy of Science reports that an estimated 25 percent of older adults are socially isolated, and more than 40 percent report experiencing loneliness. Loneliness increases the risk of dementia, heart disease, and even premature death. Fear and anxiety from being isolated and lonely can elevate stress and alter sleep patterns, reduce appetite and elevate blood pressure. Loneliness may also lead to increased alcohol consumption and substance abuse.

Although we are confident that soon the stays will be lifted and we will quickly return to more normal ways of operating, that might not be what happens for older adults who were isolated and lonely before the COVID-19 crisis.

What can we learn about caring for older populations from this forced shelter-at-home situation? Perhaps the best thing we can learn is how to find simple ways to decrease isolation and loneliness. One of the best things we can carry on past the coronavirus crisis is to remember to phone a friend or relatives. Call your grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and others as often as you can. Most parents love touching base with their children, regardless of how old the parent is. The telephone is a piece of technology that works for most adults, so does texting and email for some of the more technology literate among us. Use whatever tools you have to reach out and touch someone.

What do you talk about to your older adult?

Usually bragging about yourself is not a good thing with your peers, but with your parents, it is a must. Tell them what’s going on in your life. If something good happened to you – like you made a big sale, got a promotion, had a hole-in-one – tell your older adults! Even if it is a little compliment you got from your boss or a student told you they wanted you for a class in the next term, your older adult will want to hear that. People like bragging about their kids, so give your parents and relatives something to talk about to their older friends.

After you get done giving your 3-minute commercial about yourself and can’t think of anything else to talk about, try asking questions, such as: What was your fondest memory from growing up? What was your favorite vacation? Tell me more about your job or about what you liked best about being a parent or spouse? All of these questions give your conversation partner a chance to share a story or memory and brings back a positive feeling that occurred when the event happened the first time.

Recently a former student shared a conversation she had with her grandfather. He has some cognitive impairment and she admitted she had to have patience during the conversation, but the outcome created a precious, lasting memory.

This grandfather’s wife, the student’s grandmother, had passed away when the student was in elementary school. As a newly engaged person, she wondered how her grandparents had met, so turned on the “record” feature on her phone and asked her grandfather some questions.  What evolved was a funny, touching and heartwarming story.  Turns out that Grandpa was on a first date with Grandma’s friend, and at a big band dance, met up with the young lady (who was to become Grandma) and her date. Grandpa admitted he was instantly a “goner” for her, rather than his date. The future grandma thought he was a “nice boy” but not very settled, and anyway, she already had a boyfriend. World War II started, and Grandpa went off with the Navy. Once the war was over, Grandpa wanted to spend time with the girl he never got off his mind. So, he asked her out. She went, but told him he needed a direction in life, which motivated him to go to school and find a lifelong job in manufacturing. While he was in school, Grandpa continued to send his future wife cards and flowers and never let her have a chance to forget him. And two years later, he convinced her she couldn’t live without him! And now this story of Grandpa never giving up is a family legacy.

Older adults have so much to share, if we just slow down enough to ask and listen. And this COVID-19 crisis gives us time to do that through simple things like phone conversations. They offer a lifeline to older adults, even older-but-bolder adults. If you don’t have the time to talk to your older adults every night, split it up with your siblings or others. We’ve heard stories about adult children who have developed a scheduled rotation to make sure their mom has a conversation with one of them every day. If for some reason they couldn’t reach her, a neighbor was called as backup to go check on their mom. If your older adult can’t hear well on the phone, then that is your chance to practice your listening skills.

If phone conversations are just impossible, write a letter. It’s not unusual for older adults to save those cards and letters and pull them out to look at when they get lonely.

The isolation caused by COVID-19 is difficult on everyone. To make the most of this time, reaching out to a loved one is a good thing. And a good thing to do in the future, too.

Relationships and contact even through something as simple as a phone call provide little pleasures for the person receiving them and will help prevent them from feeling isolated and lonely.

If you’re on the receiving end of these phone calls, be grateful! And if you’re making those calls, also be grateful that you have an older-but-bolder person in your life. You’ll never regret the time you spent making the life of someone else a little more pleasant.