CNN | 3/28/2020 | Listen

The epidemic seniors in America were facing already

Updated 6:08 AM ET, Thu March 26, 2020

Editor's Note: Jay Newton-Small is founder of MemoryWell, a digital platform that brings professional journalism skills to the challenge of helping elders tell their life stories. She is a contributor to TIME and the author of "Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works." The views here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN) - Amid the coronavirus isolation under which most of America is living, thousands of tips continue to be exchanged in the media and online on how to deal with children at home. Humorous memes of children tied and gagged as mom worked on her computer have popped up. Virtual learning has proliferated, and parents have been inundated with dozens of options, many of them free.

While the immediate concern for many parents has to be the bored, hyperactive child right in front of them, the greater risk of the quarantine is more likely to fall upon their parents, and not only because of older Americans at greater risk from the disease but also because odds are they were already lonely to begin with and further forced isolation, though necessary, could be dangerous.

At a time of intergenerational tensions, it's important to remember to have empathy for what seniors are going through in this crisis, and to ask what can be done to help them survive it -- both physically and mentally.

Even before the onset of Covid-19, older Americans were experiencing an epidemic of social isolation and depression. One study found that loneliness is as dangerous to one's health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It can lead to dementia or Alzheimer's, heart disease, a weakened immune system and a shorter lifespan.

US life expectancy fell in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in large part thanks to a higher suicide rate (and suicide rates go up during the life course, research shows). The problem has gotten so bad in the UK that Britain recently became the first country to appoint a Minister for Loneliness.

Covid-19 is exacerbating loneliness

There's a reason why so many of society's punishments involve isolation. Banishment, solitary confinement in prison, even sending a child to stand in a corner or to a timeout, all involve depriving humans of human contact: it is fundamentally harmful to our health. And that is what's getting exacerbated in this Covid-19 crisis. Many seniors feel even lonelier now than they did before the outbreak.

Until now, the loneliness epidemic has been fought with programs like meals on wheels, the formation of senior centers and communal societies like The Village-to-Village Network, a kind of social network in more than 240 towns and cities for seniors aging in place. But in the era of coronavirus, meals on wheels has barred physical, and thus social, interaction. Senior centers are closed. And V2V has suspended their activity calendars of museum tours and roving Happy Hours.

"A consequence of Covid-19 that concerns me a great deal is the closing of congregate nutrition sites, senior centers and adult day programs," Bob Blancato, executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs (NANASP), told me. "This will convert many of these older adults into homebound older adults without the benefit of the socialization they did enjoy." Blancato recently engaged in an unofficial study of his own where he interviewed more than 300 adults while they attended nutrition programs, more than 90% percent said they were there as much for the socialization opportunity as for the food. "We need to ensure during this crisis that not only are these older adults getting their meals but also have a process which allows them to still have some contact with others."

The need for empathy

Joe Coughlin, head of MIT's Aging Lab, argued in Forbes that America's sudden enforced isolation may help younger people understand how stressful retirement actually can be for most older Americans. "Retirement can feel just as sudden (as Covid-19): On Friday you were working; on Monday, you are not. Colleagues, friends, clients that were part of everyday life suddenly vanish. Now you are home: out of the stream of your daily life, out of the water you swam in for years, maybe decades," Coughlin wrote. "For the first time, finding a way to overcome social isolation becomes a concern worth thinking about—one that often becomes more pressing as the years pass, mobility becomes a challenge, and social circles shrink."

And, yet, empathy for the elderly has not been the overarching social reaction, particularly by younger Americans, many of whom have continued to congregate. Granted, this is nothing new. America has always celebrated youth and denigrated age. But now age discrimination has taken on life and death implications. Last week cable news networks were alight with images of Florida beaches packed with spring breakers, partying in flagrant disrespect to the Covid-19 heath guidance.

"Why do I think that millennials are the key? Because they're the ones that are out and about, and they're the most likely to be in social gatherings, and they're the most likely to be the least symptomatic," Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coordinator for the coronavirus response, said last week in a plea to younger Americans. "And I think we've always heard about the greatest generation -- we're protecting the greatest generation right now. And the children of the greatest generation. And I think the millennials can help us tremendously."

Realizing their ineffectiveness, by the end of the week Dr. Birx's pleas had changed from save our elderly to emphasizing that 11 percent of those hospitalized are millennials and the health risks Covid-19 presents to younger Americans. If not for the Greatest Generation, then maybe their own self-interest will succeed in getting younger Americans to abide by the quarantine.

To be fair, many older Americans are also flouting the quarantine. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's assertion that as a senior citizen, he should be allowed to sacrifice himself for the greater economic good this week went viral. But the truth is, most senior citizens aren't prepared to commit the equivalent of mass suicide to salvage their grandchildren's jobs. And nor do most of their grandchildren want that. This week President Donald J. Trump suggested lifting the quarantine early for younger Americans, while leaving seniors sheltering in place. And many experts predict as the disease mutates and comes in waves, we could be looking at 18 months or more of periodic isolation, especially for vulnerable groups like seniors.

How you can help

So what can you do to help -- aside from responsibly practicing social distancing? First, don't think of it as social distancing, but physical distancing while maintaining social contact. While they aren't as myriad as the tools for children, there are some free services being offered to better engage adults sheltering in place. Here's a brief list, starting with my company's own contribution:

MemoryWell, my startup, has been offering free interactive digital timelines to help better connect separated families. We send engagement prompts like, Where were you during the moon landing? Or what was your first summer job? The answers can be recorded and posted, and cousins, aunts, grandchildren and friends can add their own memories and collaborate. It's a collaborative way to gather family histories as everyone spring cleans and goes through old photos.

Happy, a mobile app that provides voice-to-voice emotional support, 24/7, from the most caring people in the country, is available free. It's recommended by the American Heart Association, the American Stroke Association, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Mental Health America and other organizations. "Many people are unaware that humans are an 'ultra-social' species, which means being or simply feeling alone is damaging to our health," says Happy founder Jeremy Fischbach. "There is no magic wand we can wave to bring human connection and emotional support to the millions of older adults who increasingly hear themselves referred to as epidemiological statistics in the news."

Journey Meditation and Resility Health are two mediation apps that are offering free services for the rest of this year to help adults deal with the crisis. "We believe we can help people right now -- amidst social distancing measures and the stress of the unknown -- navigate their days in order to live happier, healthier, less stressed lives," says Journey Meditation CEO Stephen Sokoler. Adds Resility Health CEO Sarah Davidson: "We know that the coronavirus threat is creating a great deal of stress and anxiety, and it's important that we manage our body's response. Our body's stress response can weaken our immune systems, and at times like this we need to do everything we can to keep our immune systems strong."

YourCoach. Offers life -- both physical and mental health -- coaching on its app. "As more people are conscious of contacting and transmitting Covid-19, YourCoach enables coaches and clients to stay in contact and manage their wellbeing holistically," says YourCoach CEO Marina Borukhovich.

Element3 Health, a Denver-based company is committed to solving social isolation and physical inactivity in seniors is accelerating its focus on "virtual clubs," that will allow seniors to "gather" to remain socially connected while physically distant. "In these challenging times, it is more critical than ever for people to engage in physical distancing, while maintaining social connections. While we have to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, we can't do it at the expense of social and emotional wellbeing," said David Norris, Chairman and CEO of Element3 Health.

Burnalong. This service offers exercise classes with a split screen so seniors and remote family members can take classes together. They're offering a coronavirus special discount and limited free access.


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