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Physical distancing does not mean isolation: keeping elders safe while combating loneliness during COVID-19

March 26, 2020

Gerontology professor Andrew Wister, director of SFU’s Gerontology Research Centre, is an internationally recognized expert on aging research, issues and policies. He has suggestions for how we can protect and support elders and what to do if they aren’t taking COVID-19 seriously. His current research aims to help lessen the impact of pandemics like this in the future.

Q: Why are older adults more susceptible to COVID-19?

Most older people are in good health overall. However, they have compromised immune systems due to natural and normal aging processes. These are exemplified for individuals with pre-existing conditions—for example, about 90 per cent of all adults 65 and older have one chronic illness, such as arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. About 67 per cent have two or more chronic illnesses. Frailty, or generalized weakness of the body systems, can also predispose older adults to infectious disease. All these factors contribute to more severe symptoms and a greater risk of death for older adults with COVID-19.

Q: How can elders best protect themselves from COVID-19?

Older adults should follow the prescriptions that have been articulated by the public health systems and our government. It’s important for them to stay at home and maintain physical distancing, especially because they’re more susceptible to the negative effects of the disease.

Q: How can younger adults support and protect the older people in their lives during this time?

If you have older adults in your life, try to keep your distance as much as possible. If you need to have direct contact because you’re providing an essential service, such as food, then drop it off, ring the bell, stand back six feet; wash your hands and use hand sanitizer as much as possible.

However, it’s also important to keep connected. Some of the psychological effects of COVID-19 can include anxiety, stress, depression and loneliness. We can combat this and foster a positive outlook in several ways—through humor, compassion, thoughtfulness, mindfulness and meditation, and though non-face-to-face social contact. Limiting your intake of COVID-19 news can also reduce stress and leave more time for healthy activities.

Physical distancing does not have to mean isolation! Social support can help improve people’s well-being and ability to adjust to adversity, what we call resilience. Pick up the phone, send an email, use social media. Help make sure the older adults in your life don’t feel alone.

Q: Do you have advice for people with older adults in their lives who don’t seem to be taking COVID-19 seriously?

What I’ve found in my research is that people really enjoy routines. It’s also very hard to change people once they get stuck in those routines. Physical distancing, washing hands, going to a park rather than a community centre—these are difficult changes in routine for many.

If you’re in this situation, try to emphasize the importance of making these changes, because one person’s actions will influence others. And unless everybody buys into these preventative, low-risk behaviors, we won’t be able to flatten the curve of COVID-19.

We’re seeing the need to redefine health behaviors and what it means to have a healthy lifestyle. Certainly, we don’t want to just lock ourselves in our homes and watch TV, but there are ways to develop new routines and adapt our lifestyles so that we keep healthy, but at a low-risk level.

Q: Are you currently involved in any research projects that deal with the effects of COVID-19 on seniors and older adults?

I’m involved with the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging. We’re following 51,000 Canadians age 45 and older for 20 years and collecting physiological, social and psychological data on them. Our hope is to understand how people can better adapt to aging and engage in healthy types of aging, and to drive innovative policy, practice and programs.

Right now, we’re developing a sub-study for our current set of participants focusing on COVID-19. We’ll be sending questionnaires asking if they’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19, whether they’ve had symptoms, about their health behaviors, the extent to which they’re experiencing social isolation, and also how they’re adapting in a positive way.

Additionally, because we’ve been collecting data on these participants already, we’ll be able to look at data before, during and after COVID-19 and study what effects it has on aging processes. We’ll be able to understand why some older adults are able to bounce back from COVID-19 better than others, which entails not only physical factors, but social and psychological ones as well.

This won’t be the only pandemic that we have. Research has shown that older adults are more vulnerable and more susceptible to the negative consequences of these crises. What we learn from this particular pandemic can be extremely valuable as we move forward.