Many Canadians have been in total lockdown for several weeks — this includes seniors, who are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, but are also vulnerable to the negative health effects of social isolation. Most long-term care facilities have banned all group programing, as well as visitors and volunteers, for fear of spreading the virus throughout care homes. Several provinces have asked community-dwelling seniors to self-isolate for their own safety.
Why? Data out of China suggest that the older you are (especially when coupled with frailty), the more likely you are to die if you contract the virus. The mortality rate is 15 per cent for those aged 80 and over, and eight per cent for those aged 70 to 79. In Italy, these numbers are even higher.
Physical isolation is imperative to keep Canadian seniors, especially those living with frailty, healthy. But this does not mean we must socially isolate.
Extensive research supports that remaining social is vital to support both our physical and mental health. This can be especially challenging for community-dwelling seniors, who are accustomed to leaving home for regular visits and activities. It can even more devastating for community-dwelling seniors who were already fighting loneliness and social isolation.
So, what can we do to keep our seniors from suffering deeply from social isolation during COVID-19? Many Canadians are getting innovative.
Arbutus Walk, an independent living community home in British Columbia, has been scheduling regular dance parties where residents get together to dance on balconies.
The National Institute for Caring for the Elderly (NICE) and CanAge suggest creating a photo-board for seniors with favourite family pictures, setting up a virtual book club, or watching a TV show or movie together virtually. This can allow seniors to share experiences with others by engaging in the same activities at a scheduled time while maintaining physical distance for safety.
Research shows that maintaining a routine is important for physical and mental health – especially during a time of so much uncertainty. Here are a few tips for seniors to avoid social isolation:
Create your family tree
This could be the perfect time to start researching your family tree. This allows you to reach out by phone to speak to relatives you might not have seen for a while. Listen to the stories of their youth, about their work or other relatives. Record your findings to share with others.
Have a video chat
Platforms like FaceTime, Skype and Zoom allow for free video calls for two or for small groups using a smart phone, tablet or computer. Just like being at the coffee shop, schedule a call, grab a coffee and stay connected. Don’t worry about your hair or outfit – it’s a strange time – no one is judging!
Get some exercise
It’s important to get exercise to help keep your muscles and bones strong and challenge your balance. The National Ballet School has made their virtual resources available for older Canadians to safely bring dance into your home, including chair ballet. Incorporate exercise into your daily routine to support your physical and mental health and AVOID Frailty.
Call friends and family
Schedule regular calls to stay in touch. An old-fashioned phone call can be worth its weight in gold. Set time aside to call two people you enjoy every day.
Get outside once a day if you can
Go for a walk or sit on the porch. If that isn’t an option, sit by an open a window to get some fresh air. Incorporate this into your schedule to create a daily routine.
Be creative — paint, draw, sing, write
Everyone has a story to tell — maybe this is the time you’ve needed to write your book, paint that masterpiece or do some sketches. Pull out those crafts and art supplies and remember how creative you used to be when you had the time. Set aside time each day to use your creative side.
Social isolation and loneliness are not good for our health. But while we can’t be together physically right now, we can still stay connected.
John Muscedere is the scientific director of the Canadian Frailty Network (CFN), a critical care physician at Kingston Health Sciences Centre and a professor of critical care medicine at Queen’s University.