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  • The need for social distancing has a negative impact on all of us, but particularly the elderly, who desperately need and thrive upon relationships and physical touch. Tweet This
  • As they move out of the public eye, we must be intentional about moving closer to older Americans through other means that do not necessarily involve physical contact. Tweet This

Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recently advised:  “Everyone over 60 should become a hermit for a month.” He wasn’t kidding. In early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that those older than 65, and those with serious chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease and diabetes, have a higher risk of getting sick from coronavirus-19 and thus should practice social distancing. 

It turns out that age does matter: "People 60 and older accounted for more than 80% of the deaths in China."  However, many younger people have underlying immunity issues that compromise their health. Even people who aren't at risk of death can infect a friend or family member who is at higher risk. Social distancing is, therefore, a critical preventative measure for all of us.

When we’ve talked to older people in our lives about these statistics, some have decided to take actions to socially distance from others to minimize the chances that they will get sick. For example, Naomi has friends who stopped going to beloved music events, donating the price of their tickets; they go to grocery stores at a time when few others will be there or order groceries online and have them delivered; and they have even stopped attending religious services in person. But many others we know have decided that the need to serve others in their community and the value of social contact are more important for them than the risk of infection—or even of infecting others. 

The need for social distancing has a negative impact on all of us, but particularly for the elderly, who desperately need and thrive upon social gatherings and physical touch. A 2019 study found that when older adults interacted with people outside of normal friendship and family circles, they “were more likely to have higher levels of physical activity, greater positive moods, and fewer negative feelings.” Loneliness and social isolation can have the opposite effect on the health of older people. For older Americans whose families are distant, or who live alone, social distancing can feel especially isolating. In the U.S., 27% of those aged 60 and older already live alone, more than any other country. Being restricted to being home alone can cause even more anxiety.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Meeting the challenge of social distancing can take different forms personally, recreationally, socially, and religiously. Older men and women can take steps now to make sure they stay connected to loved ones and friends, perhaps electronically, and the rest of us can find ways to continue to nurture those connections by reaching out to our elderly family members and neighbors, without causing harm to others. 

Here are a few suggestions for keeping our elderly family and friends safe during this time:

1. At the individual level, elders and those in their kinship circles can create schedules to help them stay in contact with family, friends, and community. For example, Amy’s grandmother resides in a nursing home that decided this week to quarantine, banning all outside visitors for the next two weeks. Amy’s mother texted all the extended family to alert them to this decision and to ask that they set aside time each day to reach out to their grandmother by phone. This crisis forces the family to be intentional about decreasing her isolation and loneliness. It’s also a reminder to treasure those phone conversations. Letters and cards are wonderful, too, but hearing a voice is immediate and can open a space for your loved ones to process their own anxieties, fears, and even joys in the moment. 

2. Encourage older Americans who must stay home to stay active if possible. Social distancing will also disrupt the exercise schedule of many older adults, such as swim classes or mall-walking groups that are often a daily source of fellowship and physical activity. We should encourage older adults to continue to get outside for fresh air and brief physical activity if they are able to do so. They can check in with a family member both before and after to ensure their safety.

3. Take an inventory of the older adults in your web of relationships and identify their needs. Calling them periodically to check on whether they need anything can be a big help. Do they need prescriptions picked up or groceries brought to their doorstep? Are they feeling sick? Are they keeping up with other healthy medical practices, such as the seasonal flu vaccine? If they have pets, do they need any assistance with the care of their animals? How are they receiving news updates? For example, the National Council on Aging advises vigilance against email and phone scams claiming to offer a vaccine for COVID-19.

4. Recognize the importance of faith and religious practice to the well-being of older Americans. Religious involvement is very important to older adults, more than half of whom attend weekly worship services. But staying home from worship services can be guilt-inducing. Amy was recently asked by family members of a 90-year-old in her congregation to please advise the older church members that it’s okay to miss worship during a time of crisis. Their congregation is not only encouraging senior members to stay home, but also adjusting their liturgical practices to abstain from shaking hands, passing the offering plate, and using intinction (dipping the bread in the wine) at communion. Catholic dioceses are even lifting mass obligations for seniors. Many other faith communities are encouraging older members to remain home, and many have already canceled worship services and studies completely. 

5. Remember that elderly Americans may need help utilizing digital tools and navigating the online world. Digital means can be used to hold meetings electronically and to broadcast worship services and other events, as many churches are doing, but older members may need assistance in accessing these tools. Amy has encouraged grown children in the congregation to make sure that their older parents have a Facebook account and know how to access the congregation’s Facebook page so that they can watch and comment on the Facebook Live broadcast of the worship service. This can also be an opportunity to introduce an older relative to YouTube videos of their favorite performers at a time when concerts or musical gatherings are being cancelled.

6. As they move out of the public eye, we must be intentional about moving closer to older Americans through other means that do not necessarily involve physical contact. Because age is a determining factor in the need to avoid crowds and public gatherings, we must also actively combat ageism. In the media and in casual conversation, we may hear insensitive remarks that disparage older Americans and their value. This is a time to remember that all humans hold intrinsic value; we should recognize and honor the experiences of the older adults around us as a way to acknowledge their worth.

The following advice from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky seems especially fitting as we think about social distancing, particularly for the elderly: 

Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.

Ultimately, we need to be creative, empathetic, and caring so we can promote overall human flourishing and well-being for the elderly in the midst of keeping our distance—and asking them to do the same.  That will keep us all healthier until the coronavirus crisis passes. 

Naomi Cahn is the Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. Amy Ziettlow serves as pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church. They are the co-authors of, Homeward Bound: Modern Families, Elder Care, & Loss (Oxford University Press 2017).