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Reaching Out to the Elderly During COVID-19
Though it is well documented that medical outcomes for older adults infected with SARS-CoV-2 are grim, there is another important aspect of the pandemic that has also had a profound impact on this vulnerable population: the isolation caused by the lack of social interaction.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the toll of COVID-19 has weighed heavily on older adults. As of March 17, 2021, there have been about 517,575 overall deaths in the United States. Over half of those deaths – 304,794 – occurred in people over 75 years of age, and the majority of the remaining deaths – 190,413 – occurred in people 50-75 years old.
It became apparent early on during the pandemic how easily the virus spreads, resulting in drastic changes to visitor policies in long-term care facilities. These changes meant restrictions on not only visitations from family and friends, but also on volunteer interactions and some enrichment activities within the facilities. The lack of social connection and stimulation has caused an increase of loneliness and isolation in the residents in these care facilities.
Dr. David Carr, the Medical Director of Parc Provence, a memory care and assisted living facility for the elderly in St. Louis, Missouri, states that the residents there “have not had regular visitation from family and have been separated or isolated from other residents in our community. Many have experienced loneliness, depression, and social isolation.”
After hearing a news report about this in June, I was inspired to do something. I wanted to find a meaningful way to connect with this community who were more at risk to be impacted adversely by the pandemic.
Many of the long-term care residents at Parc Provence have dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, conditions which magnify the negative effects of the isolation brought on by the pandemic. Seniors can develop their cognitive abilities by participating in interactive enrichment activities, but these have been more difficult to provide during the pandemic. According to the Parc Provence Activity Director, Lauren Tyree, they have “had to find different ways to keep the residents engaged, such as relying on virtual activities.” I believed playing piano virtually for the residents would be a safe, risk-free way for them to have more social interaction and to improve their spirits and mental health.
In addition to the music lifting their spirits in the moment, Dr. Carr comments that “studies on the impact of music on dementia in older adults note improvements in mood, behavior, and possibly benefits in cognitive abilities.” These seemingly short musical sessions with the residents not only are entertaining, but also can potentially have long-lasting positive effects.
Dr. Carr told me about one patient in particular who “had been depressed, anxious, and lethargic in the early stages of the pandemic.” However, as she began to participate in activities reintroduced during the summer and fall, the staff could see a change in her mental health. According to Dr. Carr, “She has become much more alert, relaxed, and appears very happy. She is especially in tune to the music activities, both live and virtual, and stays engaged during performances…and these events have a lasting effect.” It is immensely rewarding to know the music I have been sharing with the residents weekly since June has had a beneficial impact.
Whether it be from my music or the many other activities offered, the residents have been able to have moments of connection while the pandemic restrictions continue. These enrichment activities not only help to relieve stress from the pandemic and their current living conditions, but also give the residents more social interaction, which combats their feelings of loneliness.
Although vaccination efforts are currently being rolled out, precautions will remain in place for the near future to safeguard our most vulnerable population. I encourage everyone to find ways to connect with older adults until it is safe to be around them in person, especially those in care facilities. This could include phone or video calls, sharing stories, playing an instrument, singing a song, or sharing a meal remotely. Creative solutions for connecting will help decrease their social isolation and loneliness and bring some joy to your day as well. These acts may feel like small gestures, but they will have a significant positive effect on the lives of older adults.
Total deaths and deaths by age: statista.com/statistics/1191568/reported-deaths-from-covid-by-age-us/