Health Care

Living in isolation has saved – and harmed – New York’s seniors

Older adults were told to stay indoors during the pandemic, but that has had unintended consequences.

Despite the state’s precarious future with the spread of the delta variant, many older adults are able to return to some of the pre-pandemic activities they enjoyed.

Despite the state’s precarious future with the spread of the delta variant, many older adults are able to return to some of the pre-pandemic activities they enjoyed. Ron Adar/Shutterstock

Throughout the past year and a half, New York’s older adults, perhaps more than any other group, have been encouraged not to leave their homes over concerns that they may contract the coronavirus and get very sick.

Even in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, older individuals over 65 were warned of the serious threat that the virus posed to them. As of January 2021, 8 in 10 coronavirus-related deaths were among seniors, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fortunately, vaccination efforts in New York have largely been a success among older adults. Nearly 82% of people ages 65 and up in New York have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Despite the state’s precarious future with the spread of the delta variant, many older adults are able to return to some of the pre-pandemic activities they enjoyed, such as going back to senior centers and visiting their vaccinated family members. Other seniors, however, have deteriorated both physically and mentally due to their time in isolation.

As the coronavirus began to rapidly spread throughout New York more than a year ago, people were barred from visiting nursing home residents. Senior centers closed. While the city and state acted in accordance with CDC guidance, some health care experts have begun to examine the harm that was also done by keeping seniors completely isolated.

“When we look back on this in the years to come, I imagine there’s going to be a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking around whether it was a good idea to blockade older adults in their nursing home rooms for eight, nine, 10 months out of the year without letting them have access to their families,” David Grabowski, a health care policy professor at Harvard University’s medical school, told The Atlantic in January. “I think we’re going to look back and say, ‘What the hell were we doing?’”

Elderly New Yorkers, like seniors across the country, had already been more prone to feelings of loneliness and isolation due to retirement, cognitive or physical issues and shrinking social circles, which were then exacerbated considerably because of the pandemic. While those residing in nursing homes had different experiences than those living at home or in a retirement community, both populations faced similar challenges: a lack of personal connection with those around them.

In January, Beth Finkel, who is the state director of AARP New York, told NPR that “being isolated is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Loneliness has, in fact, been cited as the cause of premature mortality, higher rates of heart disease, stroke and dementia, as well as an increase in depression and anxiety.

Congregate senior programs, such as at senior centers or community centers, are incredibly important to older adults as they have been shown to mitigate the effects of loneliness and isolation, Tina Sadarangani, an assistant professor at New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing, who has been studying older adults who make use of senior centers, told City & State. “Whereas you and I go to work to be productively engaged, an older retired person may lean on these types of resources for productive engagement (or) just (as) a reason to get up and go somewhere in the morning,” Sadarangani said.

While many senior services tried to put their offerings online, some older adults had difficulty accessing them and adapting to using Zoom and other video conferencing services to maintain connections with friends and family. About one-third of adults ages 65 and older said they did not feel confident using digital technology in a Pew Research Center study in 2017.

Some elderly people even found it more frustrating to use digital means of communication than going without any social contact at all during the pandemic, according to a study published in July. “It’s surprising that virtual contact is associated with greater loneliness and mental distress than no contact, but then again, not so surprisingly, a wide array of research did document the digital burden, stress and reluctance experienced by some in the aging population,” Yang Hu, one of the study’s authors, told CNN.

The New York City Department for the Aging worked to bridge the technology gap among the city’s older population by providing tech training services and 10,000 free internet-enabled tablets to seniors in New York City Housing Authority developments. Nonprofit organizations have partnered with the city to offer virtual programming during the pandemic that included everything from magic shows and exercise classes to educational offerings.

“I think we’ve provided a lot of different pathways to engage in ways that are meaningful to them, and we made significant inroads to address the digital divide,” Jocelyn Groden, associate commissioner of the department’s Bureau of Social Services and Direct Services, told City & State. “There’s definitely more to do and we very much intend to do more. That said, the silver lining of this awful period of time is that we have broken down, to some degree, the digital divide among older adults. And as the world continues reopening, we plan to offer hybrid solutions, where we continue to engage older adults through these virtual platforms, while also offering that in-person option.”

Still, nearly all experts on elder care agree that in-person socializing has proven to be the most beneficial for the physical and mental health of seniors.

While some seniors have been able to bounce back relatively unharmed by months of being stuck in pandemic limbo, others have not.

“I think many caregivers feel (the reopening of senior centers is) too little too late, that there’s only been so much we could have done to sustain (older adults) over the last 18 months and now the level of care they require is just too great (to participate in activities they once enjoyed),” Sadarangani said. “I did alternatively have a patient with dementia who went back in his program and he was so happy, he didn’t look back, he walked right back in (to his senior center) after 18 months and happily stayed there for four hours. So that’s amazing, stories like that, but I just think it’s highly variable.”

Some older people have seen a decline in their physical mobility due to a lack of exercise from not leaving their homes, while others’ cognitive functions have decreased and some have become more fearful of reentering society. There are also some older adults whose mental capacity may have deteriorated to the point where it would no longer be appropriate for them to return, Sonja Shute, senior director of Presbyterian Senior Services’ Circle of Care program, told City & State. “Folks that used to be eligible for their social adult day care programs have deteriorated to a point that that’s not appropriate support for them. So now they are more qualified for an overnight respite program or something with more individualized care,” she said.

However, now that senior centers are opening up again – after being closed for well over a year – elder care experts are hopeful that seniors will be able to maintain a healthy level of social engagement and that the lessons learned at the darkest moments of the pandemic will be taken to heart. This includes the importance of bridging the tech gap for older adults and learning the value of social interactions for this vulnerable population.

Groden also said she hoped more people will take the initiative to reach out to the seniors in their life – no matter if they’re a close family member or a neighbor you pass in the hallway – check in on them or engage them in conversation, albeit in line with up-to-date COVID-19 safety precautions. “I think we should all become agents in looking at the potential for older adults who are isolated, or maybe are being aided in this moment, and reaching out for help, or pointing older adults to things like older adults centers, geriatric mental health-friendly programs,” she said.

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