David Sandman

David Sandman

It has been more than four months since New York State was first locked down to curb soaring COVID-19 infection rates.

Governor Cuomo called it “the most drastic action we can take” and it meant that non-essential businesses ceased operations and non-essential personnel were to remain in our homes except for things like grocery runs and other emergencies. At the time, New York had just over 8,500 cases and the alarm was blaring; we have now had more than 420,000 confirmed cases in New York.

Lockdown and other strict measures have worked to bring the virus under control in New York. Once the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, New York State now has among the lowest transmission rates in the country.

Restrictions have been eased but the pandemic and its consequences are far from over. There is still a looming risk that infections could spike again. And the harms in addition to disease and death are profound: the jobs lost; the families who aren’t sure how or when they’ll get their next meal; the disproportionate impact of all aspects of the pandemic on people of color.

Even for those of us fortunate to be healthy and employed, life has been severely disrupted and isolating. We have stayed home and avoided family, friends, and neighbors. Wanting to minimize her risks, I’ve barely seen my mom since March.

Everyone I know is feeling a bit lonely these days. We miss our routines and the social interactions that occur. Even before COVID-19, social isolation was a serious public health concern. And for the elderly, increased social isolation presents even greater risks for depression, anxiety, and the worsening of physical health conditions. Personal experience backs that up. My friend’s father has memory and cognitive issues and is in a nursing home; although the staff have facilitated video calls, the lack of physical connection has been devastating to both my friend and her dad. He’s experienced a rapid decline over the last several months. Even now, as restrictions are lifted and she’s able to visit in person but at a distance, the lack of physical connection is tough; her dad doesn’t quite understand what’s happening, why his daughter hadn’t visited sooner, why he can’t have that tactile connection that brings him such comfort.

Older adults living on their own in their communities are also experiencing higher rates of loneliness during the pandemic. Preliminary results from a study of older adults living independently in the Bay Area found that 85% of those surveyed said they were socializing less often (or rarely or never) and 41% reported worsening loneliness.

What can be done to combat loneliness and isolation during the pandemic? It’s hard to fully substitute for face-to-face time; phone calls only go so far. I’ve managed a couple of visits with my mother, masked and/or physically distanced, and it’s done us both a world of good to find some degree of normalcy and connection. If there’s a way to do them safely, in-person connections matter.

But other seniors are staying connected online, participating in streaming religious services, for example, or video chatting with their grandkids (although many people I know report that most of those chats involve a lot of time struggling with technology, and nearly 30% of seniors in that Bay Area study didn’t use the internet at all).

For those seniors without family members nearby, some community groups have organized volunteers to do telephone wellness checks to let local seniors know that their neighbors care about them. These volunteers can also connect older adults with resources like grocery deliveries or mental health services. Others have created pen-pal programs, pairing isolated older adults with young people who suddenly have more time on their hands for projects like this, and who also want to feel connected. The UnLonely Project has developed specific programs to help community-based organizations that address loneliness among seniors (as well as a robust collection of “Stuck at Home” resources for combating loneliness during COVID-19, although those are not specifically tailored to seniors).

In the longer term, a recent report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on social isolation and loneliness among older adults offers recommendations for how the health care system can address this issue; these include more education and training and enhanced partnerships with community-based organizations.

When the pandemic first emerged, we all talked about “social distancing” as critical to stopping the spread of the virus. And it is, but some folks are now more careful to use the term “physical distancing,” recognizing that staying six feet apart doesn’t necessarily mean being cut off socially from loved ones. These past months have been hard, especially for the elderly and other populations who were more vulnerable even before COVID-19. But we’re coping. And we’ve found new and creative ways to connect with each other. We may be physically separate, but we are not alone.

By David Sandman, President and CEO, New York State Health Foundation
Published in Medium on August 3, 2020

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