Social isolation, also known as the Loneliness Epidemic, is a prevalent concern for the nearly 290,000 older adults living in the state of Massachusetts. A 2020 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services states that 28 percent of elders live alone in the community. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic changing people’s day-to-day lives and the ways in which they interact with others, our society must realize that isolation among residents ages 65 and up is at an all-time high.
In their many interactions with seniors, Mystic Valley Elder Services (MVES) care managers and nurses, along with Meals on Wheels drivers have discovered that loneliness and isolation is a prevalent condition. The recent report mentioned above states that loneliness can increase inflammation, heart disease, memory disorders, mental health conditions and higher death rates. Factors that add to isolation include the inevitable losses of spouse, family members, and friends over time. In addition, physical limitations and a lack of transportation reduce seniors’ mobility outside the home.
“Seniors are at a huge risk for social isolation,” says Susan Doherty, RN from MVES. “There can be many reasons for social isolation and not just during this pandemic. Some older adults might not have family, might be estranged from their family, might not be as technologically savvy as younger folks, and might rely on transportation or Adult Day Health in order to socialize, both of which are not running at this time.”
Social isolation can affect everything from mental health, nutrition, and mobility. Doherty points out. “I was with a daughter of a consumer who has been self-quarantining from her father due to COVID-19 exposure. However, because of the self-quarantining and her father’s social isolation, her father’s health has declined and would have declined further without the help of the MVES services that have been put in place such as personal care for the consumer in providing respite for the family,” she says.
MVES Intake Care Manager Annie Dodge recently spoke with a consumer, a Veteran, who receives home-delivered meals from MVES and he expressed to her how wonderful MVES is. According to Dodge, he has stated many times that MVES is something to be proud of and is appreciative that she has checked in with him so many times to keep tabs on his status. The consumer is also very happy with his Meals on Wheels driver and his commitment to bringing meals as well as his smiling face adding to his day.
“He expressed that the check-ins have made him feel important and not alone. He said he feels like he is in jail because there are two people in his building who have tested positive for COVID-19 and he does not want to leave his apartment. But, the daily delivery and a friendly voice on the phone have made a positive impact,” says Dodge.
While there are a number of resources for family caregivers impacted by the pandemic, the various crises being faced by family caregivers and their loved ones dramatically varies. This pandemic has put much more stress on caregivers who now need to shift gears to provide services and take care of loved ones in different ways, such as telephone calls, “driveway visits”, visits where the individuals are divided by a window, or using telehealth instead of home visits.
“The impact social distancing has had on the ways people memorialize their loved ones and friends is tough. Gatherings are limited or nonexistent and families coping with a loss might be feeling an added layer of grief at not being able to celebrate the life of their loved one as they could have in a pre-pandemic world,” explains MVES Caregiver Support Coordinator Kathy Learned.
MVES nurse Linda Kalogeris’, RN, mother was also a consumer living in Kalogeris’ home before going to Prospect House Assisted Living & Memory Care in Revere for respite care following a fall and broken bone.
“With the onset of the pandemic, my mother has been on lockdown in her room for several weeks and unable to receive visiting nurse services or go to routine doctors’ appointments,” explains Kalogeris. “I am worried about my mother’s growing depression and isolation. I often stand outside my mother’s facility to wave through the window.”
“It has become very evident about the high occurrence of loneliness that many older adults experience in their daily lives, and has been magnified with COVID-19’s social and physical distancing,” says Patricia Hansen, RN, from MVES. “The majority of seniors and those living with disabilities are estranged from their family and friends, or have no family or friends to speak to or interact with. Most of the time their only connection to someone who cares about them is through MVES. A caring voice on the other end of the phone or a smile and wave from a Meals on Wheels driver are critical.”
Social Engagement Services to be launched
MVES seeks to launch a new program in the near future to provide focused intervention on the poor health and wellness outcomes linked to loneliness and social isolation, a problem that is impacting older adults in epidemic proportions.
“After hearing from volunteers and staff in the field, our community partners, and from consumers themselves, we discovered that older adults are feeling increasingly disconnected and in need of more social support. We decided to take steps to address this problem,” says Lauren Reid, Director of Community Programs.
The Social Engagement Services will connect to MVES consumers through supports that could include the following: the Friendly Visitor Program, in which the consumer receives home visits that focus on in-person socialization and companionship (this will only be done safely and carefully in this time of the pandemic); the Telephone Reassurance Program where a volunteer calls the isolated individual and provides a social contact and friendly conversation; and/or an Email Correspondence for online engagement with others via technology.
“This social engagement intervention will supplement the consumer’ home care services resulting in a comprehensive care plan that supports an improved quality of life and a safe independence,” explains Reid. Trained and carefully screened volunteers will provide the visits, calls and emails.
MVES is playing an important role in the community to combat the effects of social isolation in those valued clients we serve. From increased well-being calls to ongoing home delivered meals to providing resources for family caregivers now worrying about their elderly loved ones from afar, MVES prides itself on remaining a consistent presence in the lives of those we are privileged to serve.