It never occurred to Peter Stein he wouldn’t be able to see his 5-year-old grandson.
A retired sociologist in his 80s, Stein understood the scientific argument for social distancing. But he and his wife, Michele Murdock, still got emotional when their son and daughter-in-law broke the news that they wouldn’t be able to see their grandson for months.
“For older people, myself included, we don’t know how long we have,” Murdock said. “It is a cruel event at this time in our lives.”
Many older adults, who have a higher risk of a severe illness from the novel coronavirus, are facing this hard irony: Social distancing is especially important to stay safe — but it can be hard on emotional and even physical health.
“Increased rates of cardiovascular disease, worsened diabetes, increased risk of dementia — the effects are pretty profound,” said Carla Perissinotto, chief of geriatrics clinical programs at the University of California at San Francisco. “If there’s something that’s keeping me up at night, it’s this.”
Even without pandemic-induced social distancing, older people often grow more isolated as they age, due to retirement from work, the loss of a spouse or other family members, and the death of longtime friends.
Kristen Addison-Brown, a neuropsychologist in Jonesboro, Ark., who works mostly with older patients, said that for many seniors, regular interactions with the health-care system might be a large part of their social routine.
With most nonessential medical care on hold, many older people have lost that.
“All of the things that we recommend for good mental and physical health,” Addison-Brown said, “those are the very things that they can’t do right now.”
‘A balancing act’
Perissinotto has had a personal window into concerns about older people being isolated.
Her mother, a widow, was living by herself in Santa Barbara, Calif., a more than five-hour drive away, when the pandemic began.
She fell squarely in the demographic that experts on isolation and aging are most worried about as social distancing measures go into place.
The family had a discussion: Was it better for Perissinotto’s mom to come stay with her and her husband, which meant she would not be as socially isolated? Or was it better for her to stay where she was, with little or no interaction with others?
After talking through the risks and benefits — including discussions about advanced care planning, and what the family would do if she, or another family member, got sick — they ended up deciding it was better to bring her mom to Perissinotto’s house.
“It’s a balancing act,” Perissinotto said. “And I think what’s not being talked about is how do you balance these risks [related to the pandemic] and how do you balance well-being?”
Perissinotto says their choice might not be the best decision for every family. But there is evidence that having these sorts of discussions might actually help older people cope with their circumstances.
“The idea of giving the older adults choices is key,” said Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago.
She pointed to a study that was done in the 1970s in a nursing home that found some of the feelings of depression and even physical decline in older people might be attributable to lack of a sense of control.
“We need to be hunkering down right now,” Hawkley said. “But within that context, no matter what state you’re in, how strict those rules are, there is always some kind of choice you can make. What are you going to do with that circumstance now that you’re in it and you have a choice?”
A technology solution
For some older people, technology can be an important lifeline.
Under normal circumstances, Stanice Anderson, 69, would have spent the spring speaking to groups about addiction and recovery, playing with her grandchildren and organizing dances at Capitol Hill Towers, the senior housing community in the District where she lives.
But the group gatherings have been canceled. Last month, her son came by to pick up his birthday present with her granddaughter in the car. Anderson put the present in the trunk, so they wouldn’t have contact.
“We were waving and crying from six feet away,” she said.
Yet she has learned to cope the same way many younger people have — via webcam.
Anderson has started using Skype and FaceTime to talk to her son and grandchildren.
“It definitely helps,” Anderson said. “We’re actually getting to see each other, talk to each other.”
Hawkley said the technology solution to social isolation is a good one. She thinks this might be a moment when older people who have been reluctant to use technology may learn to appreciate its benefits.
She added that older adults tend to use technology “wisely” — to stay connected to people they already have a strong connection with — rather than scrolling on Twitter or Instagram as younger adults might.
Researchers said they hope that the awareness and concern for older people who are isolated will persist long after the pandemic eventually recedes.
“We have younger adults right now experiencing some degree of social isolation that they find aversive,” Hawkley said. “And the reality is, this is an experience that older adults have been experiencing for some time, and it hasn’t been given due regard.
“It isn’t just older adults who need other people, it isn’t just younger adults who need other people,” she said. “We are social, we all need each other.”