Aging in the time of COVID-19: Social distancing or social isolation?

Doctor with stethoscope
Valley News - Health

Dr. Diane Darby Beach

Fallbrook Foundation for Senior Care

Everyone hears and understands the cry for social distancing given the coronavirus pandemic the world has been dealing with for the past several months. The primary goal is to prevent transmission of the infection to high-risk people, such as older adults.

Social distancing, however, can be helpful or harmful depending on the motivations of those who practice it. Acting out of fear and anxiety, some people engage in bunker-style mentality, hoarding supplies and shutting themselves off from others entirely.

Conversely, social distancing with the intent to protect those at greatest risk from getting sick, especially older adults, is socially and ethically responsible and benefits most people.

So, what are the downfalls of social distancing, and what can we do to address/cope with them? Many people can traverse the pandemic in their homes with the support of family and friends, and perhaps, established social media.

However, for older adults, social distancing can turn into social isolation from friends, relatives and neighbors and can be deadly. In fact, numerous studies indicate that the feelings of loneliness from social isolation foster depression, high blood pressure, anxiety and early onset of dementia.

So, what can family member of an older adult do whether their loved ones are living at home alone or residing in an assisted living community or skilled nursing facility? At the moment, all long-term care facilities are not permitting any “nonessential” visitors into their communities. As such, family caregivers may struggle with the need to communicate and remain connected to their loved ones who may not understand what is happening – especially in the case of dementia.

Try some of these tips to stay distanced but not disconnected.

Pick up the phone and call the older adults in your life to chat and check in, especially if they live alone.

When passing an older neighbor on the street, remaining 6 feet distance, ask them how they are doing. Tell them that if they need anything, they can rely on you – and maintain the commitment.

Set up daily communication online with a older loved one at home or in a facility through FaceTime, Google Home, Zoom or with a phone call or text.

Leave a voicemail message on the facility staff cellphone and have them play it back for your loved one.

Send cards, letters, magazines or other items to loved ones at home or in a long-term care facility. The coronavirus is thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Although the virus can survive for a short period on some surfaces, it is unlikely to be spread from domestic or international mail, products or packaging.

Lastly, try to remain hopeful and positive and even though the nation is in a second shutdown, know it is a temporary situation. Older loved ones will sense the positivity and calm – or lack thereof – in their family’s communications and will respond accordingly.

For more information on this topic, register for the Foundation for Senior Care’s free webinar, “Coping with Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Crisis,” Thursday, Aug. 6, from 9:30-10:30 a.m.

To register, call 760-723-7570 or sign up online:

Dr. Diane Darby Beach is a gerontologist with the Fallbrook Foundation for Senior Care.