Easing the Social Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Older People
Within the last week, the coronavirus has started to interfere with the everyday lives of millions of people. One effect of the pandemic that has not been widely discussed involves its impact on people’s social relationships as employees and students work from home, people restrict their travel, social activities are cancelled, and people generally avoid each other.
Many of the people whose social lives are most strongly affected are older individuals who may live alone, have few opportunities for social interaction, or are physically unable to get out. To make matters worse, retirement and long-term care facilities are discouraging families from visiting the residents, and many now allow only essential visits. As a result, the New York Times reported last week that nursing homes are becoming “islands of isolation.”
Given that the coronavirus poses a greater risk to older people, these policies are reasonable and necessary. Yet they can have a strong psychological impact on residents. People who live in long-term care facilities often have small social networks and limited interactions to begin with, so being unable to interact directly with loved ones makes them particularly vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. And, research shows that older adults who feel socially isolated and lonely are often depressed, become socially disengaged, show functional declines, and may even die earlier.
Feeling socially connected requires more than merely interacting with other people. It requires meaningful contact with people with whom we have supportive social relationships, especially close relatives and friends. Being cut-off from direct contact with the important people in their lives imposes a special burden on older people who live in such facilities.
We are fortunate that modern digital technologies—such as e-mail, video calls, texting, instant messaging, and social networking sites—offer more opportunities for remote social contact than we had a generation ago. Yet, many older people are not familiar with these technologies or do not have access to the computers, smartphones, and other devices that make them possible. And other individuals may be physically or mentally unable to use these devices on their own.
To ease the social isolation and psychological distress resulting from reduced contact with family and friends, facilities should provide older residents with access to technologies that would allow them to maintain ongoing social contact with the outside world and help residents use them. Video-based technologies are particularly important. Even after the coronavirus crisis has passed, these residents will be able to maintain better social contact with their loved ones in the future.
Mark Leary is a social psychologist who studies the effects of social belonging and acceptance. He is also the Editor of Character and Context.