Royce Shook

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Loneliness in the age of COVID 2

The following is part two of an article written by a friend of mine, Ken who shared it with his community, the Tri-Cities Seniors Action Society, of which I am on the Board.

Loneliness has three dimensions. The first is personal loneliness, which is often related to the absence of a significant person like a spouse or partner who provides emotional support and is someone who affirms one's value as a person. The significant someone could be a pet because pet ownership decreases loneliness. The second dimension of loneliness is the absence of a sympathy group, which can include 15 to 50 people who are seen regularly. This may be a card group, bridge or canasta, or another popular game, Bingo, which many retired seniors enjoy. The third dimension is a lack of an active network group, consisting of from 150 to 1500 people, who provide support just by being together in a group. Church services, Rotary meetings and the Lions Club are good examples of these larger groups.

Geriatricians across the country are seeing the effects of months-long restrictions. In Prince Edward Island, where 56 cases of COVID were identified between March and mid-September falls among seniors living independently rose substantially, says Dr. Martha Carmichael, the province’s only geriatrician. “911 calls for falls are up dramatically, and probably just because of isolation and deconditioning that goes along with it,” she says. On the other side of the country in Vancouver, where many of Dr. Nishi Varshney’s patients live independently, the geriatrician is helping them manage mental and physical health concerns born of isolation.

Patients postponed regular home care services when their support workers couldn’t get sufficient personal protective equipment or cancelled the services outright for fear of infection from outsiders. Their visits with family and friends became less frequent, as did trips into their communities. Their health destabilized and deteriorated, she says: “You can’t just quarantine an older person. It’s definitely not healthy for the older person and the concept is not conducive to a healthy society.”

In all countries affected by COVID-19, the message that is being sent by government officials and medical experts is “stay at home” and “isolate in place.” Isolation is especially difficult for people living in nursing homes and assisted living communities. Most facilities have asked that no one enter the facilities unless they work there because there is a high risk that COVID-19 would spread rapidly once it is introduced. Group activities have been cancelled and, in many facilities, residents are eating in their rooms, as all communal dining has been stopped. Although prohibiting group activities will decrease the risk of spreading the COVID-19 infection in nursing homes, it significantly increases the isolation and resulting loneliness of residents.

Long-term care facilities also prohibit visits from outside, including visits by family members. This is especially burdensome for residents with cognitive impairment and dementia. Many family members of these residents visit often, sometimes every day, bring food, and help the residents with eating and drinking. If they cannot visit, they may be afraid that the resident will no longer recognize them.

For years, seniors’ advocacy groups have called for better supports for Canada’s seniors. They want more affordable housing options and better access to care as close to home as possible. They want more acknowledgement of caregivers, many of whom provide life-sustaining acts like feeding, bathing and transporting seniors. They want to see policies that produce truly age-friendly communities that promote the inclusion of older people as productive and engaged citizens. They want an end to the kind of ageism that deprives seniors of their rights to make informed decisions about their lives.

Loneliness in the age of COVID 2

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