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Kevin-Barry Henry

Pandemic Isolation Can Be Especially Hard on Older Adults

By: Kevin-Barry Henry, Ask Me Anything

The social isolation that has been inflicted upon us all by the various levels of government are for our well-being, but they are having an enormous impact on all of us, especially older adults living in extended care facilities, and retirement residences.

I was talking to my dad on the phone last night as I often do, and that always makes both of us laugh. We talk about sports, weather, and tell stories. He mentioned that he had not seen me in so long and it made me wonder when the last time was that I did see me dad outside of computer screen video image or on the phone. It has been 17 weeks. I know that for many, the gap between visits with their loved ones has been even longer.

The advice from the public health officials to stay home, avoid large gatherings and limit contact with those outside your home is helping to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, and it has undoubtedly saved many lives. There is also a cost to this separation, however. It has left many of us feeling isolated from our family, friends and loved ones and feeling lonely or disconnected from others.

We have been reading for months (what else is there to do) about the possible mental harm and the effects the pandemic is having on our cognitive health. The experts are especially concerned with the impact this isolation is having on older adults, who are being rightfully encouraged to be extra vigilant because they have an increased risk of becoming very ill or worse from the covid-19 virus, if they get it.

There were days, pre-pandemic, that I would have done anything just to stay in my sweatpants and work from home without having to interact with anyone in person. That was a little over a year ago. Since then, my father celebrated his 80th birthday (he is coming up on his 81st) and although we were unable to see him in his room or take him out, we were able to assemble on the lawn outside his lunchroom window. We had balloons and streamers and homemade signs telling him how much he meant to us, and how much we missed him. We even dropped off a small cake, six cans of light beer and a few gifts that were wiped down by the great staff before he received them. He was the hit of the lunchroom that day as he waved at us with a huge grin. That was nice, but it was a long way away from being with him. I am sure that your family has had to make do in some similar way for a family gathering that has had to be cancelled or postponed.

We all are doing the best we can to stay safe but being stuck home in our sweatpants and isolated from friends and loved ones can have unhealthy consequences especially for older adults. Studies have shown that chronic loneliness can negatively impact memory in seniors. There is also evidence that being lonely for these long periods can worsen memory in older adults and if that wasn’t bad enough, it may also cause declines in mental and physical well-being.

For seniors who are already faced with a certain amount of isolation under normal circumstances, this pandemic is making things even worse.

Because of this, the wonderful people who work in extended care facilities and nursing homes are reporting that they are seeing many more cases of patients with depression, memory loss and anxiety.

Because many older adults do rely heavily on people outside their facilities for social involvement, it isn’t hard to imagine how the pandemic might also be making worse the already present challenges with loneliness and isolation.

When you add the stress of the elevated risk of contracting the coronavirus in their age group and the stress of watching and hearing the constant news feeds about outbreaks and the terrible impact of the virus, and it is no wonder that older people are being impacted.

The news is not all terrible, however. This is a tough group. Our parents, grandparents, and the generation above us has been through a lot already in their lives and they are resilient. They have been through tough times before and know what stress is and often how to deal with it, and that can help protect some of our loved ones from the negative impacts of loneliness and isolation.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is discouraging in-person gatherings with older adults that are more vulnerable, but it does not mean we can’t see them at all. I know for my father; our family does video chats with him so he can see the whole family on holidays. We are all in our own homes too, and it is not like being physically together for sure, but it is a safe way to stay in touch when nothing else is possible. I know I always feel happier after one our video chats.

It is spring, and the weather is warming up and the days are getting longer which is welcome indeed. If you live in an area that permits small outdoor gatherings, please take advantage of it with older adults. Our family did this quite a few times last summer (in-between 1st and 2nd waves as well as in-between the 2nd and 3rd waves) and everyone wore masks, washed their hands, and had a great time seeing each other.

These gatherings, although not like they “used to be” are still a wonderful tonic for loneliness but be sure to keep an eye on parents or grandparents for signs they may be suffering more than they let on.

Red Flags:

Be aware of the signs of worsening memory loss, anxiety, or depression as is it easy to miss, especially when we aren’t getting together as often with the pandemic rules. If you have plans to see your parents or grandparents and haven’t seen them in a while, it is a good idea to pay attention to anything different about them.

It might a good idea to ask them a few questions to find out how they are coping:

  • How are they sleeping?
  • Have they been eating on a regular schedule?
  • Have they lost any weight?
  • Have they been showering less, more or about the same?
  • How does their living space look?
  • Have they lost interest in things they enjoy?
  • Have they decided not to decorate for special occasions when they used to look forward to it?
  • Are the bills up to date?
  • Are they keeping in touch with friends?

Make sure the older adults in your life are not feeling left out during the pandemic and you can possibly help them exercise their mental health and memory at the same time.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Plan social gatherings even if it is over the phone or internet.
  • Encourage them to maintain their daily routines.
  • Encourage them to try activities that stimulate the brain, or better yet, play games with them.


The last year has been anything but normal for all of us but taking a little time to check in on our older adults is a great way to stay connected and help them feel loved and included. After all, we’re all in this together.

With Gratitude,

Kevin-Barry Henry.

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