John, 85, remembers bits and pieces of growing up during the polio epidemic of the 1940’s and 1950’s.
“I remember there was a lot of concern about drinking out of public water fountains, and there were many people in iron lungs, but it wasn’t as saturated as this,” he says, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m more frightened (of COVID-19.) If I get it, I might as well say my goodbyes.”
That is an especially traumatic statement, given that thousands have died of COVID-19 without the opportunity to personally say goodbye to loved ones. With patients quarantined away from their families, health care professionals are forced to step into surrogate roles, holding the hands of dying patients in their families absence. We’ve all been touched by stories from the front lines of nurses and doctors using their cell phones and tablets as a portal, allowing patients to see and hear their loved ones one last time.
It’s a heartbreaking scenario, the prospect of which has made virtual prison guards out of the families of countless senior citizens, determined to protect them, and sending an already isolated population into what feels to many like a potential life sentence.
“It’s a horrible situation.,” says John’s daughter, Liz, “Dad’s already in a position where we don’t know how much longer we have with him, and now we are forced to wait this virus out at home, unable to visit or take him out. Every day is one day closer to the end of the quarantine, but also one day closer to the end of his life.”
In the pre-COVID-19 world, John would ride the retirement community bus to the grocery store and pharmacy, where he knows the clerks by name, meet friends for lunch at his favorite restaurant, attend church services, and enjoy visits with his children and grandchildren.
Now, his outside contact has been limited to Liz, who delivers groceries and medication, gloved and masked, without visiting, and without the usual hugs hello and goodbye, for fear of infecting him.
Within John’s retirement community, residents have been forced to forgo the dining room and eat their meals alone in their rooms. All group activities have been put on hold. Without live sports to watch on TV, John spends his days reading and watching old movies.
John is fortunate to have family that call and FaceTime him often. For the residents of retirement homes and skilled nursing facilities that don’t have family, facility programming and social interaction with other residents is their lifeline.
“A lot of people in dad’s facility live alone, and some don’t have many visitors, even in normal times,” Liz says, “It’s already a very lonely existence, and now they are confined to their rooms, without the activities they enjoy to get them through the day. It’s very sad.”
In addition to loneliness, the disruption to seniors’ daily routine can lead to anxiety and depression. Like many seniors, John relies on his daily routine to give his life structure. While the activities may be simple: putting feed in his birdfeeder, cleaning his cat’s litterbox, or walking to the mailboxes, he relies on the sense of purpose these tasks provide. Having something to accomplish, no matter how menial, helps both his mood and his memory.
If you have an aging parent in isolation, stay connected in any way you can.
We have all been touched by online posts showing families visiting their parents and grandparents through a window, and on Facetime or Zoom, but just checking in by phone or text more often can provide a lot of support.
Encourage your elderly family members to maintain some kind of routine, taking up new activities, if necessary, to fill the void. Online courses, games, virtual museum tours, or streaming concerts and plays are a few ideas they might enjoy.
Bonnie, 77, who normally participates in her assisted living facility’s quilting group, has taken to making cloth masks for essential workers.
“I hate that we are in this situation, but it feels good to be able to do something that helps others,” she says, “It makes me feel like I have a little power over the virus.”
Like many, John and Bonnie avoid watching too much news.
“We didn’t have this constant stream of information when I was a young man. We read the newspaper in the morning and listened to the radio in the evening,” John says, “Hearing about it all day long is too much.”
While the news can be overwhelming, having accurate knowledge can help seniors feel empowered. Caregivers can help by increasing communication with their loved ones and making sure they are getting information from credible sources.
Many say the most troubling factor is not knowing how long the pandemic will last, and what the world will look like afterwards. Many experts say we are in for a year or more of social distancing and mask wearing.
“It’s hard not knowing how long this will go on,” Bonnie says, “But I know we will get through it. I have been through wartime, natural disasters, and the death of family. We get through it because we care about other people. That’s where the silver lining is. It’s nice to see so many people caring for others.”