Help elders stay connected during pandemic, UW aging expert says

With the world upended by COVID-19, many of us are just trying to get through each day. Shopping lists, home schooling and Zoom meetings fill the hours and propel us forward, even in quarantine.

For many older Americans, however, the rhythms of every day have not just changed, they have stopped. At higher risk of complications and death from the virus, people who once joined their friends for a weekly coffee date, cared for grandchildren or volunteered at food banks and hospitals are increasingly isolated.

“There are people in this pandemic who are overlooked. They’ve kind of vanished behind closed doors,” says Wendy Lustbader, ’82, an expert in aging who lectures in the UW School of Social Work. “We all have to be thinking about who in our lives needs a phone call so they can vent their frustrations, maybe laugh and think about something else for 10 minutes.”

Three groups of older people are especially vulnerable right now, Lustbader says.

Family caregivers

In the U.S,, spouses and partners provide most of the care for aging people with dementia and other conditions that require assistance. Before the pandemic, adult day centers and part-time helpers offered those family caregivers a break. “To be cooped up without the normal ways to refresh yourself is really difficult,” Lustbader says.

Taking a minute to think about who in your life is a caregiver and how you can support that person is critical, she says. If your neighbor’s husband has dementia, knock on her door and spend some in-person time chatting with her from a safe distance. “To have somebody else to talk to lightens the load, releases stress and reduces isolation, which helps with patience,” Lustbader says.

Recently bereaved

Losing a loved one during the pandemic is especially difficult, Lustbader says. Without the opportunity to gather for funerals and memorials, the recently bereaved are forced to bear much of the burden of their grief alone. Reaching out to someone who is grieving can seem fraught. But this is not the time to avoid that difficult phone call, she says. Saying just the right thing is not what matters. “It’s your presence” that makes all the difference, she says. Bearing witness to their suffering is the important step. “We’re just not sure how to handle grief,” she says. “We don’t realize that to be present and to receive somebody’s feelings is an enormous help.”

Elders who live alone

Even before the pandemic, researchers linked loneliness and social isolation in elders with higher rates of depression and declines in overall physical and mental health. Older people who found ways to assuage their loneliness and stay connected through volunteering, going to the gym or visiting senior centers no longer have those outlets.

“All of this was lost,” Lustbader says. “We have to think as a society about elders who struggle with isolation and are now more alone than ever.” Lustbader, who lives on Vashon Island, says her local senior center changed their practice for delivering food to house-bound elders. The volunteers are now trained to knock on the door, leave their delivery and back away to a safe distance for a 15-minute chat. “It’s not the food delivery that’s medicine for the soul,” Lustbader says. “It’s the hanging out.”

As the pandemic drags on without a clear end point, people need to think creatively about how to connect, Lustbader says. Know which of your elder neighbors lives alone. Knock on their door. Offer to pick up a treat for them at the store. Leave a pie and a note. “One good outcome of the pandemic is we’re realizing how much we need each other,” she says. “Kindnesses we considered old-fashioned are new fashioned now.”