“Growing old is like being increasingly penalized for a crime you haven’t committed,” philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once remarked.
Given that 80 percent of those who have died due to the effects of Covid-19 have been over the age of 65, Teilhard’s observation has never been more appropriate.
These days the act of being admitted to an assisted living facility may be tantamount to a death sentence. So could a visit to an emergency room or a trip on an elevator. Or, particularly sadly, an afternoon at home with family.
Because our immune systems don’t function as effectively as we age, those currently in retirement are being robbed of the life cycle events that enhance retirement — like time with our children, our grandchildren, our social community. These connections, which are so vital to seniors, now are frozen out, memories rather than ongoing bonds.
This unfortunate circumstance is not likely to change quickly.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor from Vanderbilt University, put it bluntly, “this ought to be top of mind for people over 60, and those with underlying health problems…the single most important thing you can do to avoid the virus is reduce your face to face contact with people.”
Noted epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm expanded upon Schaffner’s position. He said, “We have a lot more to go…we will all know somebody, we will all love somebody who will die from this disease…we have an incredible journey ahead of us yet.”
Covid-19 is forcing experts to practice what they preach. “It’s always been easy to be abstract when you’re a public health person when something’s happening in Africa or Asia or the Arabian Peninsula,” Dr. Osterholm commented. “But now it’s happening here, and we have to internalize this.”
Following the recommendations of experts like Doctors Osterholm and Schaffner can be horribly inconvenient for Americans under the age of 65 — but for the 12 million plus “seasoned citizens” who live alone, it can be just plain horrible. Same can be said of the 1.5 million who live in nursing homes, where visitors have been almost completely curtailed.
Psychologists have expressed concern that physical distancing can be the fast lane leading to deleterious behavior – social isolation, depression, substance abuse, and suicide ideation.
Social isolation has been defined by The National Academy of Sciences as “an absence of social interactions, contacts and relationships with family and friends, with neighbors on an individual level and with society at large on a broader level.”
Science has shown us that meaningful social relationships are actually necessary for health and survival — indeed, there is an abundance of studies which conclude risk of death from numerous causes is greatly increased under conditions of social isolation.
Ironically, those at highest risk from both the virus and the cure — social distancing — are those who are the oldest. “The current period of social isolation will disproportionately affect the elderly population,” Dr. Yellowlees Douglas recently wrote.
There are resources for the elderly, especially online. Websites like CDC, Eldercare Locator, National Council on Aging, and Area Agencies on Aging all contain helpful information.
Those with some technological savvy, or caregivers who do, can set up video chats with friends, families, and physicians. The contacts can be helpful in mind and body. Because houses of worship are closed or limited, interactions with fellow congregants or faith leaders may be especially important.
Many experts point to the outdoors as our safest place if we maintain appropriate social distance. Activities like walking, gardening, and light exercise are the best.
Stocking up — not hoarding — is also a great idea: medicines, food and pet supplies.
Staying informed and planning ahead in case of an emergency are the two most important steps the most vulnerable can take. Knowing who to call, making sure that someone is regularly in touch and being aware of potential problems can avert disaster.
As demographer Lyman Stone pointed out, “when you get old, something kills you. But Covid is an extra something. An extra wolf is in the pack.”
What an unwelcome wolf it is.