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Older Adults, Social Isolation, and Technology During COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Kenny Rakwong, Database, Operations, and Research Intern, C-TAC

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted people all over the world. There are over three million confirmed cases worldwide and no country has seen more cases than the United States. Countries around the globe are implementing ways to slow the spread of the coronavirus, from being under national lockdown to closing public areas such as schools and malls. Nearly one third of the world is under some type of restriction in response to the virus.

Although many are being cooped up at home, it’s important to consider that humans have evolved to become social creatures, thriving in collaborative groups of people. Being isolated at home for a long period of time, especially during a worldwide health pandemic can quickly lead to feelings of isolation. We particularly enjoy being surrounded by friends and family and sharing our personal experiences with others. However, with social distancing and quarantine, effects of social isolation and loneliness have become a growing concern. With its connection to numerous physical and mental health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression, it’s important to not also fight the virus but combat these issues as well.

Older adults and those with underlying medical conditions are more at risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19. Unfortunately, they also report higher rates of social isolation. Studies have shown that older adults with chronic illness are more than twice as likely to feel socially isolated than older adults who do not have these health issues. Some factors include peers not sharing similar experiences; therefore, they feel alienated or alone. It can be harder for people to understand everything that is involved with serious illness, and this often leads to disconnect in relationships. Older adults that suffer from feelings of loneliness and social isolation can become more prone to other serious chronic illness and vice versa. This is because health issues worsen social isolation, creating a vicious cycle for those suffering with pain isolating them, and the results of loneliness then worsening their health. Based off research conducted by AARP, an additional $6.7 million is spent in health-related spending annually by socially isolated adults. If regulations instruct older adults to remain home, have their groceries and medications delivered, and also avoid social contact with friends and family, fast action might be needed to alleviate the mental and physical health consequences of social isolation. Raising awareness on this issue, its associated health risks, and learning more about resources available to combat against it is a crucial step in alleviating symptoms before they worsen due to isolation.

Older LGBTQ adults are more susceptible to health risks of COVID-19 due to a large number having fair or poor health due to factors such as high rates of stress from systematic harassment and discrimination, a lack of cultural competency in the healthcare system, and struggles from low rates of health insurance cover.

Based off a survey conducted by the California Health Interview Study, heterosexuals, LGB, and transgendered adults were polled on physical and psychological health, accessibility to health care services, and impact of societal biases. They configured that nearly double of LGB youth are likely to be overweight and are double as likely to experience psychological distress compared to heterosexual counterparts. Transgendered adults are 30% less likely to have health insurance coverage compared to heterosexual adults. LGB youth are 25% more likely to attempt suicide compared to heterosexuals and transgender adults are 25 times as likely to have suicide ideation. LGBT people are at higher risks for cancer, mental illness, and other diseases. They are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and using drugs. Statistics in the poll showed that LGB youth are more than two times as likely to smoke cigarettes. They also face concerns about discrimination in their in-home and residential care settings, as well with their health care providers. Compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers, LGBTQ older adults are less likely to reach out to health and aging providers such as senior centers, meal assistance, and other programs dedicated to ensuring their health and wellness due to fears of discrimination and harassment. Due to a research at AgeUK, LGBT individuals are more susceptible to loneliness, as they are more likely to be single, living alone, and disconnected from family. Meanwhile may still needing special assistance. LGBT are more likely to come out later in life where opportunities to make friends are less available, as well as opportunities to be estranged from family members that are unwilling to accept them. Living in rural areas is also a possible factor that increases the likelihood of isolation for LGBT adults. Not particularly because of geographical isolation but due to attitudes of being less open minded in rural areas.  SAGE, America’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT older adults, has been organizing check-in phone calls to members of the community and has started virtual programming for participants in their SAGE centers in a way of keeping the community connected.

Technology is an important tool that could be harnessed to provide social support networks and a sense of community for older adults. It’s essential for their mental health for older adults to keep in touch with loved ones. Devices that are specifically geared towards older adults with little understanding to use is recommended. Tablets like GrandPad, make the process for video calling and photo sharing as easy as possible.  Services such as Papa, connect college students and older adults for virtual conversations. Social media sites such as Stitch provide companionship and a sense of community for older adults.

Interesting services such as ‘Nancy’s Tech Help for Older Adults’ have been valuable during this time period. Her service provides assistance in teaching older adults how to use technology and feel more connected during COVID-19. However, she goes beyond just teaching them how to text and send emails but also teaches how to get medical results online, contact their doctors, live-stream church services, and become more connected with their family. Her unique business has allowed her to also provide companionship for her clients. Since she understands that many of her clients are cooped up at home and alone, she provides many tasks and activities for them to keep them engaged and active. As a result of this, many of the adult children of these older adults have gotten into contact with Nancy giving her great gratitude for her assistance, time, and genuine kindness.  

Teaching older adults with smartphones how to use apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp allows for regular communication, as well as using apps like FaceTime and Skype. These apps allow users to communicate via video and audio which allows older adults to show their face and home condition, letting family know if loved ones are stressed or not keeping up with their home, allowing an indication and signs of their health condition.

Food delivery service apps such as Instacart and mail order pharmacies have been serving as a vital role as people are required to stay at home. Allowing users to shop for and order items without having to step foot inside a building. However, it’s important for these delivery companies to prioritize senior deliveries and reduce or waive senior fees until the danger of infection subsides. This also opens the opportunity for regular customers to chip in through crowdfunding, as apps can ask existing customers to pitch in and pay a senior’s delivery fee.

With senior centers, gyms, and walking trails closed, older adults that are used to going out to stay active may face difficulty. Youtube provides senior-focused exercise videos that could be played on their devices in their home. Several apps also allow users to be reminded of prescription drugs, schedule meals, and live a healthy lifestyle. Telemedicine services also allow people to communicate virtually with their doctors and health providers. 

With the expanded Medicare telehealth coverage, it’s necessary that telehealth expands access to include mental health care as well. Apps like TalkSpace and Betterhelp allow for online counseling via text, audio, and video message with professional counselors 24/7. In March, 6,175 mental health professionals volunteered to help New York provide free online services assisting with mental health to help with the emotional toll from the COVID-19 crisis. Although older adults are highly susceptible to dangers of COVID-19, their non COVID-19 related issues should not be forgotten. Social distancing and isolation may take a heavy toll on their mental health. In responding to the pandemic, it’s crucial to be mindful of the challenges that physical distancing creates on vulnerable older adults and to address these challenges while also fighting against the virus.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy Spear on May 21, 2020 at 3:44 pm

    Excellent article, Kenny. During this crisis, I encourage everyone to call their older adult family members and friends at least once a week, if not more. They can be isolated and just need to hear a friendly voice. And in turn, you might be surprised how happy it makes you.

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