By Dr. Diane Darby Beach
Gerontologist - Fallbrook Foundation for Senior Care 

Aging in the time of COVID 19: Social distancing or social isolation?


Last updated 7/24/2020 at 12:48am

We all hear and understand the cry for social distancing given the COVID-19 public health pandemic we have been dealing with for the past several months. The primary goal is to prevent transmission of the infection to high-risk people, such as older adults.

Social distancing, however, can be helpful or harmful depending on the motivations of those who practice it. Acting out of fear and anxiety, some people engage in bunker-style mentality, hoarding supplies (i.e., toilet paper depletion) and shutting themselves off from others entirely.

Conversely, social distancing with the intent to protect those at greatest risk from getting sick, our elderly, is socially and ethically responsible and benefits most of us.

So, what are the downfalls of social distancing, and what can we do to address/cope with them? Many of us can traverse the pandemic in our homes with the support of family and friends, and perhaps, established social media.

However, for older adults, social distancing can turn into social isolation from friends, relatives and neighbors and can be deadly. In fact, numerous studies indicate that the feelings of loneliness from social isolation foster depression, high blood pressure, anxiety and early onset of dementia.

So, what can you do as a family member of an elderly loved one (living at home alone or residing in an assisted living community or skilled nursing facility)? At the moment, all long-term care facilities are not permitting any “non-essential” visitors into their communities. As such, you, the family caregiver, may struggle with the need to communicate and remain connected to your loved one who may not understand what is happening (especially in the case of dementia).

Here are some tips to stay distanced, not disconnected:

1) Pick up the phone and call the older adults in your life to chat and check in, especially if they live alone.

2) When you pass an older neighbor on the street, remaining 6 feet distance, ask them how they are doing. Tell them that if they need anything, they can rely on you (and maintain your commitment).

3) Set up daily communication online with your older loved one at home or in a facility through FaceTime, Google Home, Zoom or with a phone call or text.

4) Leave a voicemail message on the facility staff cell phone and have them play it back for your loved one.

5) Send cards, letters, magazines or other items to loved ones at home or in a long- term care facility. Coronaviruses are thought to be spread most often by respiratory droplets. Although the virus can survive for a short period on some surfaces, it is unlikely to be spread from domestic or international mail, products or packaging.

Lastly, try to remain hopeful and positive and even though we are in a second shutdown, know this is a temporary situation. Your older loved one will sense the positivity and calm (or lack thereof) in your communications and will respond accordingly.

For more information on this topic, register for our free webinar, “Coping with Social Distancing During the COVID Crisis," Thursday, Aug. 6, from 9:30-10:30 a.m.

To register, call 760-723-7570 or sign up online:


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