Jackie Starr is used to socializing. By choice, she worked until the age of 74, holding respected positions in geriatric healthcare and at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as well as the Colorado Department of Labor. On weekends, she usually spends at least half a day with her eight-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, who she calls her beloved companion.
“She brings joy and youth back to me,” said Starr, who received her Master’s in Public Administration and Urban Policy from CU Denver. “When I’m with her, I get silly all over again.”
As you can imagine, life for Starr and other senior citizens has changed drastically in the past four weeks. The coronavirus pandemic has swept the globe, infecting more than 2.3 million people in 212 countries and taking the lives of at least 165,100. One of the most at-risk populations is older adults, along with those with compromised immune systems. The novel virus targets the respiratory system and is extremely contagious, which is why several states in the U.S., including Colorado, have been under strict orders to stay home except for essential travel. That means unless you’re going to get groceries or pick up medication, you should be at home.
Following these orders is even more critical for Starr, who is 76 and has a history of pulmonary problems. She falls in the very high-risk category, and she hasn’t left her house in more than four weeks except to pick up groceries in the parking lot.
Many of us know someone who shares a similar experience as Starr, whether it’s a parent, grandparent, family friend, or neighbor. So, how are they doing? We asked Starr, along with Teresa Cooney, chair of CU Denver’s Department of Sociology, and Danielle Varda, an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs, to shed some light on the impacts of social isolation on older adults. Cooney, who studies aging populations, and Varda, who was recognized as an inaugural Chancellor’s Urban Engaged Scholar for her research on how social connectedness affects health, remind us of the realities older adults are facing and some of the things we can do to help.
Social Isolation Brings New Challenges
According to the World Health Organization, older adults, especially in isolation, may become more anxious, angry, stressed, agitated, and withdrawn while in quarantine. This part of the community was already vulnerable, Varda explains, and the pandemic has exacerbated those vulnerabilities in really vivid ways.
“For some, this means they are missing the birth and first months of their grandbaby’s lives, for others it means they are having to find alternative ways to get the care they need, and for many it means they are living with a new fear that this might be the way their lives end if they do simple errands like go to the grocery store,” she said.
In addition, Cooney explains, these populations are experiencing new challenges during social isolation, such as lack of mental stimulation and the inability to perform tasks that once promoted a sense of competence for them.
Starr, who received her Master’s Degree in Teaching from Harvard University, hasn’t had access to her beloved book club that she’s been a member of since 1967. She misses the stimulation of social interactions, she said. “I worked for so long, interacting with professionals, people in nursing homes, and clients,” Starr said. “Just being able to be with a wide range of people all the time was very nourishing for me.”
In general, there are a lot of things for older adults to worry about right now. “If they are living alone,” Cooney said, “they might be more worried about, ‘What if something happens to me?’”
Varda added: “A person’s social health is one of the most important mediating factors to a person’s health outcomes … Many older adults are in isolation today, and that coupled with the unknown and fear, may have serious long-term consequences.”
Starr has had abdominal pain for the past few weeks, but she can’t see her doctor in person because of potential exposure to the virus. She worries about things like valet parking at the university hospital and the patient waiting room. “Even if you don’t get the virus, if you have health conditions where you might need care, the question is, will you be able to get it?” said Starr, adding, “This isolation also causes me to dwell on my own health a little more, and that creates more anxiety.”
While Starr understands the panic of hoarding toilet paper and groceries during this time, she wants younger generations to understand that she’s not able to go from store to store to find what she needs to stock her shelves. “People like me, who depend on others to do their shopping, just can’t get around from place to place,” she said.
The Importance of Offering Support
To help aging adults cope through these unsettling times, Cooney recommends reaching out and checking in. If you have older adults in your life, talk through some of the concerns they have, and if you’re able to, let them know you can find some of the things they may need.
Keep in mind the resources available in the Denver metro area, such as volunteer organizations like A Little Help, which connects neighbors to older adults to help them thrive, and local churches that may be offering virtual social support services.
“Ask if there are things you can do for them to make the situation better,” Cooney said. “Keep in contact, even though you might not be able to be face to face.”
Varda stresses the importance of ensuring community groups and micro-networks continue to help seniors get their needs met. The pandemic is an opportunity to make some real changes that will strengthen communities going forward, she said.
“This pandemic is shining an important light on how critical it is to care for our older adults, to find alternative ways to provide health care for them, to keep them engaged in work and activities, and to strengthen these systems to ensure that their social health remains strong throughout their lifetime,” Varda said.
Older People Are More Resilient
In general, Cooney says, there are a lot of misconceptions about older adults and their mental health. “On average, this population reports higher subjective well-being and more emotional resiliency than younger adults,” Cooney said.
“They can usually cope better with things than people who are younger than they are and that could be a positive right now,” she said. “They’ve had experiences that have given them perspectives and orientations that help them process situations better.”
This is evident with Starr, who has experienced major life events in her 76 years. When she was a child, the biggest health scare was polio, a disease that paralyzes muscles in the body, including the lungs. Whooping cough was also a concern, and, at one point, Starr’s family worried she had contracted the disease. She was put in isolation at a hospital.
“I remember my parents coming and standing outside the window of the hospital room,” Starr said. “That kind of echoes what people are having to do with loved ones in a nursing home today. It’s such a harrowing experience to think that you can’t touch the people that you love.”
Starr misses her connections—her family, her memoir writing club, her book club, and her significant other. But she understands the circumstances of today’s world, and instead of dwelling, she tries to focus on the positives.
She’s grateful for her neighbors who have graciously offered to pick up her groceries and shovel snow off her driveway, and for FaceTime, which allows her to stay connected with her family. She’s learned to use Amazon Prime for everyday household items and Chewy.com for her dogs’ needs. She has a new respect for news anchors and broadcasters, who are showing that they, too, are humans, carrying out their work from their living rooms.
There is a positive side of this, Varda said. The connections that seniors are discovering via technology have, in some cases, increased their social connectedness. “Churches are convening prayer groups online, friends are having virtual happy hours, and families are checking in more often on the older adults in their lives.”
Starr said optimistically: “I wasn’t a great fan of texting because I think talking on the phone is more personal. Now I’m texting more back and forth with people … During the afternoon, I turn the music channel to golden oldies, so I’m doing housework to songs of the 50s and 60s.”
Although there are a lot of things for aging adults to worry about right now, we must not downplay their resiliency, Cooney stressed. Instead, maybe we can learn from it.