Striking a balance between quantity and quality of life is something for both patients and health care professionals to consider. Medical science has the means to extend life, but if additional days come at the price of personal well-being, a patient may opt out of treatment altogether.
Since COVID-19 first broke out in the United States in March 2020 in an acute care facility, health experts have warned that older people are at a higher risk if they contract the virus. The understandable response has been to segregate the older population to their homes (or facilities) to reduce potential infection. However, as quarantine has continued, the ramifications of prolonged isolation have posed a significant health problem as well.
In the article “The hidden Covid-19 health crisis: Elderly people are dying from isolation,” several examples of the adverse impacts of isolation are detailed, including that of Chester Peske, a 98-year-old male who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease before the pandemic began.
It wasn’t just that Chester’s family couldn’t visit once his facility was closed to visitors; it was also the reality that the daily activities of life and social interaction at the facility were discontinued, too. Within a short time, Chester’s health declined. He stopped eating and withdrew until he was identified with failure to thrive and sadly passed away without his family being able to say goodbye.
Chester’s example is an unfortunate one that has been repeated in other elder care environments, too. It’s even manifested among the caregivers serving this population, since they, too, have to isolate to protect their clients. Due to exclusion from people and purpose, elders are also reported to suffer more falls, are less ambulatory, and have seen other existing conditions accelerate, such as dementia.
Data as to the impact of isolation as a cause of death is not widely available, but family and care takers are reporting more stories like Chester’s. People in quarantine are “being robbed of whatever good days they have left, and the situation is accelerating the aging process,” per Joshua Uy, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
We are social beings. We need to feel connected to others and have a sense that we’re realizing our purpose. And yet, we live in a culture where many experience loneliness even during normal times. From Designs for Health, a recent article makes the point that even with all the technology available today, people feel lonelier than ever. “Nearly 35 percent of all US adults over the age of 45, 80 percent of those under 18 years, and 40 percent of those over 65 years are reported as lonely.”
The use of quarantine as a remedy to stave off infection has unintentionally exacerbated mental health problems for some, and hit seniors hard, in particular. The lack of family contact and social interaction has led some seniors to experience mental health problems alone, including depression and anxiety.
As these mental conditions persist, a person’s overall health suffers, too. Illnesses such as high blood pressure and heart disease worsen, and a feeling of hopelessness leads to poor choices such as pulling inward even further from those few people an elder can interact with. Persistent depression alters the brain’s neuro-chemical pathways, and thoughts that had once seemed uncharacteristic of a person make sense in their new state of thinking.
As the lockdown continues, experts recognize that more needs to be done to address the mental health issues of isolation. Elder care professionals are working together across states to share ideas for how to safely support seniors.
A few of the more innovative solutions presented by ADvancing States to assist aging and disability agencies are listed below.
- Robotic Interactive Companion Pets: Several states began purchasing robotic pets and dispersing them to seniors to help improve overall mood for individuals. As of August 2020, in Alabama, for example, 130 pets were dispersed to communities across the state and due to favorable response, they plan to purchase and disperse more.
- Neighbor-to-Neighbor campaigns: States are using existing platforms to encourage connection between neighbors. Older residents can ask for and receive specific support from volunteers in California, for example, via the Nextdoor app.
- Tailored technology: Programs throughout the country are utilizing technology and virtual connectivity. Project VITAL (Virtual Inclusive Technology for ALL) in Florida works to connect seniors through specially designed tablets that can access resources like music, books, games and provide the ability to video chat and email with family.
For seniors who live alone, there are additional resources you can ask for in your community. If you need help finding outlets, look to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services for ideas provided at the state level. There are also Aging Life Care certified professionals such as those at Home Health Companions whom you can hire to assist in help you access the services most beneficial for your particular needs.
Most important is to understand that isolation leads some to believe they are truly alone. However, the truth is that more health professionals recognize today than ever that we must address the underlying mental health illnesses aggravated by the pandemic. The quarantine may be the momentary solution until there is a vaccine, but it needn’t be the conduit of mental health problems for our seniors if we respond appropriately.