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Combating Isolation in the Elderly During the Pandemic

Resilience in Even a Few is Good For All of Us

Michael J. Montegut, PhD

Bottom of the Box, LLC

"The wisdom and experience of older people is a

resource of inestimable worth. Recognizing and

treasuring the contributions of older people is essential

to the long-term flourishing of any society."

— Daisaku Ikeda

Undoubtedly, our COVID-19 sequestering has resulted in an epidemic of

isolation and loneliness [Brittany Lyte, 2020]. No group bears the brunt of this

more than our elderly, who, in the best of times, are faced with social isolation and

a sense that they are no longer needed. That COVID-19 affects the elderly and

infirm more harshly than other groups makes them even less visible as they try to

stay fully sequestered for their protection. Yet, to adhere to our democratic ideals

set out a little over 200 years ago, we must engage with all members of our society,

even those who are out of sight for the time being. Resilience is not just an

individual feature. It is an aspect of organizations from the smallest club or

company of 2 or 3 up to our greater society in our home country and general

human society across the globe. The notion that, when we increase the resilience of

our community, we help everyone is not a new one. The Romans aspired to this

[Forbis, 1996], and Confucius articulated a societal vision that still informs many

institutions and societies in Asia [Confucias, 1992]. In the face of this

unprecedented pandemic, we see people adapting and making heroic contributions

to society's resilience.

In our society, Our elderly lead increasingly separate lives. This separation

seems to be an unintended side effect of a nuclear family model that rapidly

evolved after WW2 and still flourishes to this day. The shelter in place orders

combined with the inherently higher risk that COVID-19 poses to the elderly has

magnified this and led to a crisis that we can not ignore. Just as a team is more

effective when all team members are engaged, our democratic society functions

best when it includes everyone. This isolation became more apparent when

COVID-19 hit our convalescent homes. Suddenly people could not show up in

person to visit relatives in the health care facilities for the elderly and infirm.

Many found the images of family members visiting with relatives in nursing

homes through windows, with the elderly relative quarantined on the other side of

the glass, to be sad. I found it poignant to be sure, but I also see it as a

demonstration of our adaptability, our resilience in action, and our dedication to

our elderly. I experienced this with my parents. My mother is in a skilled nursing

facility and separated from my dad, her husband of 55+ years. My mom has

dementia. In the best of times, the ups and downs and the steady melting away of

her memories and everything that make her who she is is nothing short of

heartbreaking for the people who love her. She can't use a phone, because, without

the visual cues, she can't recognize who is calling. She has no idea how to use a

smartphone. The Shelter in Place orders and the facility lockdown where my mom

resides meant that face-to-face visits were a thing of the past. My dad and I have a

real fear that, without visual contact and stimulation from us, my mom will forget

who we are at an accelerated pace. It is deeply distressing.

We had to come up with ways to enrich our interactions and keep her engaged

with us. But her inability to use a phone and the moratorium on even through glass

visits left us adrift. Rescue came in the form of a selfless, outwardly focused

person, Cameron, a physical therapist at the facility. He arranged for us to have

FaceTime video calls with my mom using his private cell phone. He holds the

phone and works it for her, all while he encourages her to recognize us and speak

to the images on the little screen. When my dad asked if he could drop off some

candy for my mom (she has a major sweet tooth), Cameron, immediately

recognized that my dad should not be going out as he is also in the high-risk

category. This man, who we barely know, insisted that he would get the candy and

make sure my mom knew it was from us.

Cameron's kindness, enthusiasm for his patients, and his willingness to take a

few extra steps have made an enormous difference in our lives. He has made us

more resilient with his generosity because he has given us hope, the single most

significant contributor to resilience. My dad and I are happy knowing my mom is

okay and that she still remembers us and can interact. Our experience with

Cameron is another example of how little things, simple things, can bring us

together and increase our individual resilience and that of our society as a whole.

One final note about Cameron: I find his selfless attitude comforting and

inspiring. When I thank him for everything he does that is above, and beyond the

call of his duties, he insists, no, that it is part of his job. He is a physical therapist,

and facilitating phone calls isn't part of his job. Still, he is a super resilient person

with a personal mission that extends to the selfless support of patients and their

families in whatever way possible.

In the spirit of little things making a big difference in the lives of the elderly,

from the start of the Shelter in Place order, people in my neighborhood have been

checking in more often on our elderly neighbors. It is often just a matter of

standing 6+ feet apart or talking through a window with them. Or offer, as some of

us have, to shop for them. A couple of people in our broader neighborhood helped

some elderly neighbors to make online grocery delivery orders. All these

interactions took just a few minutes and were fun (especially just talking with these

people who have seen so much more of life than us younger folks.)

As a bonus, I (along with everyone I've met who has contributed in these ways)

feel more resilient, have more hope, and can see a way forward in the midst of all

the devastating pandemic news. These good feelings underscore another aspect of

resilience that we will address in future articles: one can improve mood and access

hope (even in the face of one's own sadness and sense of desolation) through

selfless contribution to others.

It does not take much effort to blunt the sharp pain of isolation in the elderly.

All one has to do is show up, ask questions, offer to help with simple tasks, and,

most importantly, listen.

Confucias. (1992). Analects (D. Hinton, Trans.). Washington, DC: Counterpoint.

Forbis, E. (1996). Municipal virtues in the Roman Empire: The evidence of Italian honorary inscriptions. Stuttgart,

Germany: Teubner.

Lyte, Brittany, 2020.

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