Aging and Isolation
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Chiefly, the pandemic is affecting seniors’ physical health and emotional needs, both of which can be exacerbated by separation from friends and family.
“There is an extra layer of social isolation and loneliness among the 65-plus community,” says Wes D. Wick, co-founder with his wife, Judy, of Young Enough to Serve (YES!). “The need for human interaction is stronger than ever, but many younger relatives feel they should be staying away from older adults.”
“A number of seniors already were living alone,” says Wes R. Bartel, director of Senior Adult Ministries for the Assemblies of God at the Springfield, Missouri, national office. “The decreased relationships resulting from COVID-19 have a tendency to create additional emotional problems, such as depression.”
In a spiraling downward trend, the lack of human interaction can result in the elderly becoming distraught, which compounds underlying medical issues. Mental and physical deterioration often impacts the will to live.
Not only have the aged been unable to visit loved ones, they also at times have been restricted from seeing them while hospitalized. Sometimes they can’t even say farewell at funerals because of pandemic regulations.
“Isolation leads to fear and depression, and that leads to hopelessness,” says Sherree V. Lane, a Minneapolis-based endorsed chaplain through U.S. Missions who works with senior adults at a pair of independent living centers as well as a care center. “One resident told me, I don’t know if I’ll ever see the end of this; I don’t know if I’ll live that long.”
John J. Heide, an endorsed chaplain through U.S. Missions to the second-half generation, notes that a lot of hangouts for older adults — senior centers, recreation courses, art classes, and even churches — are shut down because of the pandemic.
“I’m encouraging seniors to get involved in any way they can to engage society,” says Heide, 70. “Seniors need human contact, exercise, and socialization.”
Geriatrics expert Carla Perissinotto of the University of California-San Francisco, in recent testimony before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, declared that loneliness and isolation have spurred a public health crisis. Such conditions cause older adults to have a heightened risk of developing dementia and premature mortality, as well as the probability of decreased mobility, she testified.
“Aging in place” — staying in one’s own residence rather than relocating to an institution or moving in with grown children — is a common desire for most seniors. Despite failing health, they often oppose choosing an assisted living or some form of group home that offers more care.
“Moving out of a home filled with memories of 40 or 50 years is not easy,” says Bartel, 72.
Seniors also are resisting moves to nursing homes in this era because some still are prohibiting visitors. And the death rate in such facilities has skyrocketed.
Lane, 65, says the quarantine caused by COVID-19 has caused numerous residents of group facilities to decline in cognitive and physical functions.
“They need routine, and they are now out of their routine,” Lane says. “They can’t go to meals, exercises, or other activities. Not even family members can get in. They are just in their rooms all the time.”
More so than younger people, the aged are likelier to attend church services and related activities more frequently. A vast number now must watch services online rather than attend in person.
“Senior adults are not necessarily more dependent on church than others, but the church is an important anchor in their lives,” Bartel says. “The fellowship they’ve come to appreciate and love has come to a standstill.”
Bartel notes that some church staff and volunteers are being more aggressive at keeping in touch with seniors who are staying home from services by making phone calls to check on their well-being.
According to Bartel, various seniors have become more active on Facebook this year in an effort to maintain connectiveness. Some are encouraging others by posting devotions. Wick notes that rather than viewing themselves as victims, more seniors have taken to writing encouraging blogs. The more they adapt to technology platforms, such as FaceTime and Zoom, the better, he says.
The antidote to physical and mental deterioration during the pandemic is to remain active, maintains Wick, a U.S. Missions missionary in Scotts Valley, California, serving with Chaplaincy Ministries
“We think of seniors as being vulnerable,” says Wick, 66. “But they need to find ways to serve: prepare meals, make dresses, host coffee on the patio. We don’t have to shut down and feel like victims in all this.”
What’s more, the novel coronavirus has created additional opportunities to serve, Wick says.
“By sending cards and phoning people, we can help others to thrive rather than merely trying to cope,” Wick says. “God will bless those who reach out rather than sulk.”
Heide also urges older adults who are capable to be “missionaries at home.” For instance, they can knit masks, scarves, and hats for medical personnel. They can be more engaged with their grandchildren via phone calls, emails, and letters, says Heide, who is based in Conway, Arkansas.
From the onset of COVID-19, government agencies have warned of the susceptibility of anyone who has reached 65. But Wick doesn’t like the age labeling. Wick distinguishes the “old old” — those over 85 who indeed tend to have multiple chronic illnesses — from the “young old” — those between 65 and 85, many of whom are quite robust.
“The elderly are not all frail and incapacitated,” Wick says. He notes that one way or other, an aged person will be leading the country after the November election. Joe Biden will be 78 by inauguration day; Donald Trump is 74. In addition, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is 78 and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is 80.
Not that long ago, magazine articles routinely declared that “70 is the new 50,” because senior citizens are living longer and are in better shape than those in previous generations. However, Wick is concerned that government guidelines and media portrayals are redefining perceptions.
“We’ve gone in reverse during the pandemic: 65 is the new 85,” Wick says. “The broad brush that 65 means frailty is wrong; many seniors are thriving and in great shape.”
Heide is concerned that fallout from the pandemic could leave the elderly more marginalized.
“Seniors are seen as high risk, which really means nonessential,” Heide says.
Lane agrees that culture is moving into a mode of devaluing the elderly.
“Some young people think it’s the fault of old people for spreading COVID-19 and for the deaths,” Lane says. She also views the 65 threshold as arbitrary.
“It’s really underlying health issues rather than age that makes people high risk,” Lane says. “If people keep walking and keep themselves strong, they can fight declining function. Some people in their 90s have recovered.”
As an independent living chaplain, Lane engages in conversation with residents, although often that must happen over the phone these days.
“They just want to have someone to talk to, and to pray with, if they are open to that,” Lane says. “I try to encourage them from God’s Word.” She says residents have told her they reread the comforting memos she’s written to them over and over.
During this time, younger generations should learn from the elderly of how God has provided in the past, Bartel says.
The pandemic has presented an opportunity for seniors to share thoughts and memories that might not otherwise be sought, according to Bartel. Heide says those who have lived through cataclysmic events — the Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement — can offer hope to younger people distraught about surviving the time of COVID-19.
Wick likewise suggests younger people take advantage of the unique era by drawing out the aged for advice and wisdom. It’s a good time to document stories and legacies via video, he says.
Bartel doesn’t believe senior adults will be marginalized, at least in Christian circles, because numerous churches are dependent upon their donations for economic survival.
“I really believe in some ways COVID-19 is the best thing that ever happened to the Church,” Bartel says. “It has moved us away from the nonbiblical approach of seeing the Church as a building or location and forced us to see humanity — we as individuals — as the Church.”