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Opinions & observations: Keeping contact with our elders is crucial amid COVID-19

At the very least, take this as a sign to call your grandma.

August 14, 2020 Lee Hoff
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This world is a scary place, and the only thing scarier is having to brave it alone. While COVID-19 has led to the widespread practice of social distancing, it has effectively sentenced many elderly Americans to social isolation. It is important to remember that loneliness, too, is bad for your health. Now is a pivotal time to develop strategies to maintain contact with our elderly loved ones because life may not return to “normal” for a long time.

I work at a pretty popular urgent care with locations in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. Every day, I meet patients from all walks of life with one thing in common: the past three months of quarantine have illustrated the difficulty of being alone. Many of my younger patients are resilient, and they have been quick to adopt strategies like meeting with friends in parks or open-air venues to maintain six feet of distance. Video chatting has been another useful resource that has softened the impact of physical separation. Sometimes I crack a joke about the virtual background I use during Zoom meetings, which happens to be a picture of a Lady Gaga concert (the only way I’ll ever be able to make it front row, it seems). But many of my older patients remark that their visit to my clinic, with the exception of the occasional run to the grocery store, is the only time they have left their house in months. Because COVID-19 is especially fatal for those over the age of 65, social distancing has been necessary for survival. Many of these geriatric patients do not even have emails to receive their COVID-19 test results.

It is also important to note that my patients all live independently. New Yorkers who live in nursing homes do not have the ability to leave on their own accord. With the exception of their health care team, human contact is limited to visitors and other residents. However, social distancing has restricted many of the social events that were once in place to combat loneliness. And while visitors are now permitted in hospitals and group homes at the facility’s discretion, visitors are still not allowed in nursing homes.

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A 2012 study found that 43 percent of Americans over the age of 60 years reported feeling lonely. This same study found that loneliness was associated with decreased ability to perform daily activities and decreased mobility. Unsurprisingly, social isolation and loneliness are also associated with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. In the long term, loneliness was even associated with higher risk of death. With increased social isolation, loneliness is sure to increase. This truly has the potential to become a public health issue unless we take measures to prevent it.

Lee Hoff is a senior medical scribe at CityMD. Photo courtesy of Lee Hoff

Luckily, we live in an age where remote contact is possible. The elderly may not be technologically savvy, but now is as good a time as ever to learn how to FaceTime. For those who are not able to afford smartphones or laptops, even a phone call once per week is better than nothing. It is vitally important that we show those who are most at risk that we love and care about them. They are not forgotten, their life is still valued. This includes those who do not have families or loved ones. The Queens Public Library here in New York, the Motion Picture and Television Fund in Los Angeles, and the Friendship Line in San Francisco have all taken the initiative to match volunteers with elderly correspondents whom they call to check in on.

Of the many things COVID-19 has brought to light, the value of human contact is one we have all learned to appreciate. While broader PCR testing and opening businesses allow us to resume many of our daily activities, we must not forget about those who are still facing isolation and loneliness as an indirect result of protecting themselves. It is important that we learn how to maintain contact with older populations now because no one knows how long the current state of affairs will last. We have the technology and the resources. At the very least, take this as a sign to call your grandma.

Lee Hoff is a Bed-Stuy resident, senior medical scribe at CityMD and full-time student pursuing an MPH at SUNY Downstate.

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