Social distancing without isolation

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For several previous Thinking Ahead columns, we’ve focused on the detrimental effects of social isolation in the senior population and ways to combat it, but COVID-19 concerns mandating social distancing and restricting visitation at some residential facilities makes this challenge much more complicated. We spoke with local agencies on how their seniors are coping with the rapidly changing situation and ways to stay connected and safe at the same time.

At Hospicare & Palliative Care Services, all events and support groups at its facilities have been suspended until April 15, and all staff, volunteers and visitors are screened upon entry. Hospicare Director of Development and Community Relations Jennifer Gabriel said every decision is oriented around protecting the physical and mental health of Hospicare patients.

“We’re really being called on to be incredibly creative, to still work within the structures and the confines of the regulations and the laws that are in place to protect patients and healthcare providers while also being able to serve the community that needs us the most right now,” Gabriel said.

Love Living at Home has had to cancel all its programs, but to continue its mission of helping seniors live comfortably in their home, the organization has implemented a calling tree. Cheryl Jewell, executive director of Love Living at Home (LLH), said this is a list of about 60 people LLH staff and volunteers call on a regular basis to check in on them during the coronavirus crisis.

“People are scared,” Jewell said. “Obviously, we’re in the population that’s most at risk, so I think it’s helping people to stay connected with folks.”

Longview, a senior residential community, has suspended all visitation at all its residences to protect residents from being exposed to the coronavirus. Like other residences, part of Longview’s community was an array of events and activities for residents, and those have had to shift due to COVID-19 concerns as well. Director of Development and Community Relations Kathleen Burke said that so far, residents have been supportive of the changes.

“All of us in the back of our heads were concerned about some negative feedback about the changes that are being implemented, but everybody is so very grateful,” she said.

And like other groups who work with seniors, Longview staff have made a point to check in on residents to see how they’re faring.

“All of the staff here have a really positive outlook and make sure to extend the extra, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’” said Director of Recreation Breelan Nash.

The YMCA of Ithaca and Tompkins County, which has a large senior membership, has closed its facility completely for the time being, but CEO Frank Towner and YMCA staff have started sending out regular newsletters to stay connected with their senior population. The newsletters keep people updated while also providing advice for at-home activities. And, like LLH, the YMCA has set up a phone tree so folks can check in on each other.

Organizations are taking these and other steps because they recognize how crucial socialization is for seniors. Gabriel said crises like this can instill fear and worry, cause changes in sleep patterns and worsen of existing chronic health problems.

“When you think about seniors, especially those that live alone, those stressors can feel especially overwhelming,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel said she’s concerned for people at home and in independent living facilities during coronavirus changes because many of them rely on visits from family and friends for basic needs like cooking and cleaning. With social distancing and visitor restrictions put in place, many caregivers can’t support their older relatives during this time of need.

“The lack of caregiving right now because of visitor restrictions can be crippling,” Gabriel said. “My heart just hurts for the seniors who are facing this very real situation, but my heart also hurts for the caregivers who understand the very real risk of isolation and simply can’t get to their loved ones to help.”

The best way to combat these negative effects, sources agreed, is by finding creative ways to stay connected with loved ones and the community. At Longview, Nash said staff are working to make sure residents are taken care of, with programs like a shopper service and assistance in setting up Skype calls for those who depended on family members for basic needs.

While the coronavirus situation makes socialization a bit more difficult, Gabriel said there are still plenty of ways for seniors to stay connected and get the socialization they need.

“Social distancing is really about creating a physical distance between yourself and other people, but it doesn’t mean you need to isolate yourself completely,” Gabriel said. “You can still chat with neighbors and friends as long as you keep six feet between each other.”

Jewell said seniors checking in on each other and people checking in on their older relatives is one of the best ways to help break through possible feelings of isolation.

“Being socially isolated creates not only mental health problems, but it can also cause physical issues, and then, knowing that each other are OK for that day is a good idea because some people live alone and people could fall,” she said. “Anything can happen to anybody at this point, so it’s good to check in on people and have people check in on you.”

Towner, as an older adult, has followed that advice, calling friends, family and others to stay connected. He said he’s optimistic after seeing the senior population in the county work to support one another.

“Seniors realize the seriousness of it, so they keep themselves together,” he said. “They realize that this is serious, but it will pass. … You do what you need to do, you take care of your family, and then you move forward.”

A common theme through all this, sources agreed, is a resilient senior population who understands the gravity of the situation and is working together to stay physically and emotionally healthy.

“This community is pulling together in creative and innovative ways, and we are doing everything we can to make sure that people come out of this healthier and stronger if possible or at least that we all get through it together,” Gabriel said.

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