It is no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the lives of the elderly, a population at high risk for contracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The pandemic has created a new reality in which families are unable to visit their elderly members, leaving them isolated from the world. Yet these unforeseen circumstances have inspired new methods of connection for individuals and communities alike. Such efforts for reimagined, creative engagement give us hope for the future.
We know that as people grow older they become more vulnerable to all kinds of health risks. This was true long before the pandemic, but is even clearer now. However, physical health is not the only concern, as mental and social health are also vital to living a long and robust life. Our elderly are often mentors and role models not just for their own families, but for their community as a whole. We rely on their experience and wisdom to guide us through the challenges that inevitably face each generation.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has made interaction with senior citizens extremely difficult. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that over 80% of all COVID fatalities have been those over the age of 65. As a result, many state and local governments have restricted visitation to retirement communities and other long-term care facilities to protect the elderly.
A recent poll from the University of Michigan found that among adults aged 50-80, 56% report feeling isolated from others and 41% feel a lack of companionship. These numbers are significant increases from the university’s 2018 study, indicating that the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness for many older Americans. According to the CDC, “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.” The CDC also reports that “loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.”
Health experts have been sounding the alarm on senior isolation for years, but the pandemic has brought needed attention to the “Loneliness Epidemic” plaguing elders in our community.
Thankfully, in a time of immense sorrow and uncertainty, we are seeing new and creative ways to engage with our elderly. Letters Against Isolation (LAI), founded by Shreya and Saffron Patel, is one of many programs helping seniors struggling with loneliness. The inspiration for LAI began when the Patel sisters were unable to visit their grandparents, but knew they had to stay connected. Through the work of their organization, thousands of seniors in assisted living facilities across five countries have received handwritten letters offering encouragement, hope, and love.
While the federal government continues to address the pandemic in a predictably impotent fashion, other organizations and also local governments have been doing their part to help senior citizens in need. Riverside Health hospital in Newport News, VA has been fostering communication between elderly residents and their families, while also offering food, puzzles, dancing, karaoke, books, and more in their facilities. Mon Ami has been working with the City of San Francisco and local nonprofits to ensure that seniors are connected to their family, friends, and community, while having the resources they need delivered directly to them. Self-Quarantined Delivery, Ink., founded by Pepperdine University students in Malibu, CA, has expanded across the country to deliver groceries and other essentials to at-risk individuals.
Similarly, local governments in Mission Viejo, CA, Portland, ME, Pompano Beach, FL and Corona, CA have partnered with local retailers to reserve shopping time for seniors so they can shop without the concern of large crowds. The willingness of local businesses across the country to voluntarily adjust operations to help the elderly has been admirable. Additionally, cities like Santa Clara, CA, Jackson, MI, West Sacramento, CA and San Antonio, TX have established services to deliver groceries, meals, and supplies to local seniors so they can remain safely at home. While these efforts may not negate the difficulties brought by the pandemic, they show seniors that they are neither alone nor forgotten—far from it, in fact. Elderly Americans have spent their lives serving their communities in all sorts of ways, and this is the time to return the favor.
Despite the tragedies brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a resurgence in community-making as we gain a newfound appreciation for our neighbors. Loneliness and isolation continue to be major challenges for elderly Americans, though there is certainly reason for hope in the midst of these trying times. What we have seen across the country over the past year is simply exceptional, as families and communities come together to support each other in a time of need. While we mourn the tragedy of loved ones lost, we should also celebrate the love we have rediscovered: love of conversation, community, and connection with those near and far.
Pooja Bachani Di Giovanna is the assistant director of the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University