Even before the pandemic, older adults were more likely to be lonely or socially isolated. As adults grow older, they could lose family or friends, live on their own or face a multitude of other factors that could contribute to them feeling less connected.
Now, in these times of social distancing and shutdowns, seniors are even more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation. Since they are at higher risk of becoming severely ill after contracting COVID-19, many hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living facilities have implemented rules and procedures to protect those most at-risk–including restrictions on visitation.
Larry Weiss, a senior, experienced some of this limitation himself when he was hospitalized in February. Throughout his month-long stay, the hospital had just started limiting visitors. For some of that time, he was only allowed one visitor a day, and that visit could only last around an hour.
“That was really tough, so I understand,” he said. “Not having the ability to have family or friends or relatives come in, in some capacity, is hard, especially during the pandemic. And people are dying, and they may never see their relatives.”
And this kind of isolation is not restricted to just those in health care facilities. Some seniors, like Tod Sherman, have been feeling the isolation that comes with social distancing as well.
As his wife’s health worsened over the years, Sherman found himself becoming more and more socially isolated. Eventually, he became her full-time caregiver, which meant he couldn’t participate in as many of the activities he did before. Even so, one big part of Sherman’s routine remained–yoga.
Before, Sherman taught yoga to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder at a veteran’s hospital. Now, he has to find new ways to incorporate yoga into his life.
“I have to get up every morning and really do my yoga and breathing and stretching…to start the day off in a positive way every day,” he said.
He has been considering teaching his yoga classes through Zoom but said that idea still is a bit intimidating due to his limited computer literacy. However, he has found that Zoom meetings with friends and participating in online yoga classes with friends have been good for him.
“It’s really a lot nicer and easier when you can actually see the faces and see the people that you haven’t been able to communicate with in quite some time,” Sherman said.
Other adults have also had to navigate how to communicate with loved ones. For Rhonda and Scott Wiley Ashurst, the pandemic has led to them finding new and different ways to keep in touch with their parents.
Since Scott Wiley Ashurst’s father, Jim, lives in an independent living facility, he and many other residents were affected by new limitations. With the new restrictions, the seniors were no longer able to congregate together for meals or activities, which meant his dad was isolated in his room for a majority of his days.
The facility did offer a “sunshine table,” where visitors could visit their loved ones while sitting six feet apart and wearing a mask. The couple did this once but has since found alternative methods to engage with Jim.
Now, every day, they video call with Jim during their “happy hour,” where they share a drink with him and talk about his day.
Since Rhonda Ashurst’s mother, Anita, lives on her own in a retirement community, she has more freedom to go out and socialize but still has been limiting contact with others. She and her daughter talk on the phone every day, and the couple also shops for her groceries to help her social distance.
“It definitely…has changed our lives, in that we spend a lot more time talking to and caring for our parents than we did prior,” Rhonda Ashurst said. “There’s more of a day-to-day connection…that wasn’t happening before.”
But for some seniors without strong family ties, staying safe and social like this can pose more of a challenge.
The Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network (Nevada CAN) seeks to support any older adults who may be negatively affected by the pandemic. This initiative offers a multitude of services, including providing telehealth, meal deliveries and social support.
Through their social support system, the Nevada Ensures Support Together (NEST) Collaborative, any adult can access three different services depending on their needs. With these, people can talk to a volunteer twice a week, video call with other seniors and a volunteer or receive tech assistance so they can talk amongst their own friends.
Jennifer Carson, the Director of the NEST Collaborative, said that this initiative is important, especially due to the risk that loneliness and social isolation poses to one’s health.
“We don’t want people to protect themselves from COVID-19, only to succumb to the plague of loneliness,” she said. “We’re here to alleviate that chance.”
Carson said the initiative has been beneficial for both the adults participating and the volunteers. Because the same volunteers call twice a week, they can establish a relationship with each other and have meaningful conversations.
She spoke about one program participant who had a great experience. After moving away from a great social life in Washington, this 75-year-old woman was feeling a lot more isolated, especially after her church closed months ago. She had trouble getting groceries and had a difficult relationship with her daughter.
Then she began talking with a volunteer. In addition to providing social support, the volunteer helped the program participant get transportation, financial assistance, telehealth and other services she needed.
Carson said they can provide services to any vulnerable adult, not just those over 65. She added that anyone interested can dial 211 and ask for these services.
“Social distancing does not need to equate with social isolation,” she said. “You can stay safe in your home and stay connected to your community.”
Bianca Wright is a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she is studying to get a double major in Journalism and Spanish. Aside from being a lifelong writer, she has a passion for photography, traveling, and learning about other cultures. In the past, she’s written several news articles for Noticerio Móvil, a bilingual newspaper at UNR. There, she reported on stories related to topics like DACA and COVID-19 in Spanish and English. With her writing, she aims to find creative and respectful ways to help tell the stories of underrepresented communities in Northern Nevada.