When a Pandemic Makes You Feel Like an Inmate

Mark, 82, moved into assisted living a month ago, just before the coronavirus pandemic. He needed more help than could be provided in his home by his daughter. He also wanted his daughter to have the opportunity to go back to work full-time, as he knew she really wanted to do. The decision seemed like a good one at the time. Yet, now he’s in worse shape than before mentally, not physically, due to loneliness and isolation.

Since Mark moved into assisted living, the coronavirus pandemic has made everyone extra cautious. He is glad for this, because older adults, as well as people with compromised immune systems and those with underlying chronic medical conditions, seem to be at higher risk of developing serious, life-threatening complications from the coronavirus. However, Mark’s children haven’t been able to visit him and residents are in isolation in their rooms. Mark feels like a lonely inmate. His children are concerned because loneliness kills a lot of people, too. If coronavirus doesn’t kill seniors, will loneliness be the culprit?

In another instance, June’s family used to pick her up several times a week for home-cooked meals and church services. The 93-year-old has lived in assisted living for two years since a small stroke. During a flu outbreak there last year, she was able to leave the facility to stay with her daughter, Sue. But now she’s stuck at the facility after developing a cough two weeks ago. She doesn’t understand why no one is coming to visit her and why she can’t go stay with her family. Her daughter is concerned that her mother is very depressed, not knowing what’s going on. The staff are trying to do their best, but Sue wonders if they are caring for resident’s mental health as well as their physical health? Sue has taken to leaving homemade soup outside the nursing home for staff to bring inside to her mom.

Why Seniors are Being Isolated

Mark and June’s experiences are a grim tale of what residents and their loved ones face as the coronavirus spreads around the country, with seniors being the most susceptible to serious illness. While most people recover from the virus and many have mild symptoms, seniors are especially at risk.

The safety of seniors is being prioritized because of their unique vulnerabilities to this virus. This is why nursing homes and assisted living facilities around the country are on high alert for coronavirus, boosting their cleaning regimens and clamping down on visitors.

While this is happening, the residents remain in a purgatory. They are mostly restricted to their rooms with no visitors. Roommates or neighbors across the hall are isolating themselves. Some people are confused about what’s going on. The inability to comfort confused residents has been especially painful.

The Importance of Caring for the Mental Health of Lonely Residents

Millions of people, alongside worrying about an unfamiliar and fast-moving pandemic, are also wondering how to care for and connect with parents, grandparents, spouses, and other loved ones who are being required to isolate.

Loneliness is particularly dangerous for seniors. In a 2018 survey of 55,000 seniors, 29% of 65-to-74-year-olds and 27% of respondents aged 75 and over reported they were “often or always” lonely. Seniors who are experiencing social isolation or loneliness may face a higher risk of mortality, heart disease, and depression, says a newly released report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nongovernmental organization. Other research shows that being disconnected poses comparable danger to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is more predictive of early death than the effects of air pollution or physical inactivity. But how do you stay connected when people (especially seniors) are supposed to be practicing social distancing?

Staying Connected to Senior Loved Ones

Making sure that you stay in touch with senior loved ones can help to ease any feelings of loneliness they may experience while in isolation. Technology can’t replace the feeling of communicating in person, but it’s important to use the resources you have to stay connected while loved ones are in isolation:

  • Call your loved ones regularly on the phone and see how they are. For many, the telephone will be the easiest and most accessible way to keep in contact.
  • Use Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date and keep in touch.
  • Use FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, and other types of video calls on a regular basis to speak with your elderly relatives and friends. This will be a valuable lifeline to the outside world. Some of this technology might be new or difficult to use for some older friends and family. Offer help and support to install and use apps.
  • Food-delivery apps and free online classes or events can be helpful at this time. “I encouraged my Mom last night to shift to play online bridge instead of going to her bridge tournaments,” said Amy Wilkinson, author of The Creator’s Code and a lecturer at Stanford Business School.
  • Attend streamed online religious services.
  • Challenge yourself: Is there a jigsaw puzzle that you’ve never got around to? Do you enjoy Words with Friends? Or do you like to read or write? Try making a list of all the books you’ve wanted to read for a while, and then spend your evenings steadily working through that list. Now might also be the right moment to start that novel you’ve been meaning to write.
  • Hobbies that could help you relax: Why not use your creative side and adopt a new hobby? These can include arts and crafts, such as drawing, painting, collage, sewing, craft kits, knitting, sewing, coloring, mindfulness, playing musical instruments, singing or listening to music, writing, yoga, and meditation. Drop off a craft kit for staff to give to your loved one if he or she seems interested.

Plan for Your Loved Ones During this Difficult Time

For most of us this will be a difficult time. But remember, isolation measures are to protect as many people from the worst effects of coronavirus and this will be temporary. If we make the effort to stay connected, we can make a big difference to people who are feeling alone at this time.

Our firm is dedicated to helping protect seniors by preserving dignity, quality of life, and financial security. At the Farr Law Firm, we plan to remain open, and we will also continue to take the health and safety of our clients and staff extremely seriously. For those who feel safer in their homes, we are now offering videoconference or phone appointments in lieu of in-person meetings. Please contact our office if you are interested in this option or if you have any questions or concerns. For those of you who prefer in-person appointments, we are still offering them and taking proper precautions as determined by the CDC regarding stopping the spread of the coronavirus in our office. Please see our update regarding the coronavirus for more details. We will also soon be offering free online educational seminars to replace the live in-person seminars that we used to offer every month.

If you have not done Long-Term Care Planning, Estate Planning, or Incapacity Planning (or had your planning documents reviewed in the past several years), or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please call us to make an appointment for an initial consultation:

Elder Care Attorney Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Elder Care Attorney Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Elder Care Attorney Rockville: 301-519-8041
Elder Care Attorney DC: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.