Borrowing from a famous quote by Mark Twain, the running joke is that reports of the death of the year 2020 have been greatly exaggerated.
Sadly, the joke is laced with more truth than we’d like to admit.
Last year a worldwide pandemic changed life as we knew it. Among the swiftest changes were stay-at-home orders that effectively isolated millions of us. As the year closed and 2021 began, many of us hoped it would disappear quickly, for no real reason other than being sick and tired of being deprived of freedoms the virus has cost us.
Instead, infection rates remain largely out of control, and a vaccine hasn’t yet made it to the general population. Many of us have been affected, directly or indirectly, despite precautions.
We’re all fed up and want it to end, and yet it will likely disrupt our lives and isolate us for months to come.
From many years of working with the elderly and those with dementia, I knew that isolation would be devastating. My greatest concern was for those seniors who with memory loss who lived alone or at a distance from their loved ones.
In addition to being the most vulnerable to fears, isolation, and uncontrolled changes to routines, they were also among the most vulnerable to the virus because of their age, according to most early reports.
I encouraged family members to visit loved ones as often as possible using whatever safe means were possible: telephone calls or socially distanced visits. Video calling became an overnight solution for many, especially for residents in facilities with staff who could manage the meeting technology.
Yet through it all, I was happy to see my residents stay healthy and happy despite the stay-at-home orders and being isolated from family.
When it comes to the virus, they (and their loved ones) feel they’re isolated in a good way. They laugh and talk through the news whenever it’s discussed. The rest of the news is a different story, especially images of violence and disorder, leading to agitation, fears and concern. In cases like this, having memory loss is a blessing as the stories are quickly forgotten with a bit of redirection from our staff.
Living with others during a stay-at-home order is one thing but living alone is another.
Both are forms of isolation but living among those you see every day, free to engage with others, is not isolation in the full sense of the word.
True isolation can be devastating to those with memory loss because it leads to loneliness. Being lonely can lead to depression and declining health for all ages.
For those aging alone, however, studies also suggest that it hastens memory decline. It’s a win for the virus, and our loved ones are the losers.
More than one in four American adults over the age of 60 live alone, according to some estimates. Already suffering from loneliness, depression can deepen. Their long-term health and often memory are clearly at risk.
Being among others is one of many reasons that families choose communities for their loved ones who need care.
Since last March, however, many large residential facilities and
communities have restricted interaction among residents for extended periods of time. Some residents are completely isolated in their rooms, dine alone and exercise in their rooms. They only see families or friends from great distances. Touch (important to emotional well-being) is out of the question. In many ways, they are living like the millions of others who live alone, despite the best intentions of their loved ones.
I don’t like to end on a negative note, so let me emphasize one point: loneliness and depression are devastating for those with memory loss. If we have loved ones who are affected, we might be the only ones who can do something about it.
Get involved and check in much more often as the pandemic lingers on.
Find staff members who can help if loved ones are in communities and see what can be done within policies to better meet their needs. There are also activities that may help stave off depression and stimulate the mind, such as jigsaw puzzles or art activities.
Continue to call often and send personal items like photos to remind loved ones they’re not forgotten. Most of all, reassure them this really is a temporary situation.
As much as I hate the phrase, “new normal,” it’s coming nonetheless, and we need to survive to enjoy it.
Lauren Mahakian is a certified care manager and offers a free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia with Lauren. Visit familyconnectcare.com for more information.