Combating loneliness and isolation
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, people who are older and isolated have often faced the greatest challenge and hardship.
Loneliness was a major health concern before the pandemic, said Lauren Carpenter, a medical social worker for the Northwest Colorado Health Home Health & Hospice program.
And as people age, social isolation can increase as people deal with chronic illness and lose eyesight, hearing, mobility and driving privileges, she said.
However, “it’s not discriminatory,” Carpenter said. Both pre- and post-pandemic loneliness impacts people of all ages.
A study conducted by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine shortly before the pandemic reported more than one-third of adults in the U.S. ages 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults ages 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.
Another survey released in January found over 3 in 5 Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of premature death from all causes, an increased risk of dementia, higher rates of depression, anxiety, suicide, heart disease and stroke.
When it comes to loneliness, “it’s impossible to separate the mental health and physical health,” Carpenter said.
Casey’s Pond incorporates the Eden Alternative philosophy, which seeks to address the “Three Plagues of Nursing Homes: loneliness, helplessness and boredom,” described Casey’s Pond Lifestyle Director Cathy Reese.
“Those three plagues can kill people,” Reese said. “It’s a serious and under-recognized medical issue.”
Before the pandemic, “it was a difficult journey,” Reese said. “Now, COVID has really exacerbated it.”
When the pandemic was new, Carpenter said there was more of a sense of unity.
She and her colleagues called every home health patient to ask how they were doing — and they were managing pretty well, she said.
Nine months later, Carpenter said she sees people “being more honest about how they are feeling and more open to connecting to people, even if it’s just over the phone.” And they don’t want to talk about the pandemic, or the news, she said. “They want to talk about the things that give them light and meaning and purpose.”
Molly Lotz, a licensed clinical social worker and crisis support counselor at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, emphasized, “Isolation doesn’t define loneliness — if someone is alone, you can’t automatically assume they are lonely. You can have isolation without loneliness.”
As Lotz ruminated on what is means to be lonely, she settled on “not having the sense you have someone who cares about you.”
With that in mind, she encourages people to find, foster and strengthen meaningful connections, and find creative ways to show others they are cared for.
Lotz prefers the terminology of being physically distanced as opposed to socially distanced.
Maintaining those all-important meaningful and social connections is possible from a distance, she stressed.
The antidotes for the three plagues of loneliness, Reese said, are meaning, connection and spontaneity.
For older people who have been much more isolated because of the pandemic, a lot of the technology is just not as accessible.
But there has been a steep learning curve over the past year, Carpenter said, with many older people learning how to use Zoom or FaceTime from their grandchildren or attending virtual doctors appointments.
“The importance of connection doesn’t go away just because we are in a pandemic,” Carpenter said.
Ways to connect
Even if social connections are on a screen, “being able to see faces and smiles is incredibly important,” Lotz said. Especially when much of the outside world is covered by a mask.
When it comes to screen time, the brain functions similar to an in-person conversation more than “zoning out during a Netflix binge,” Lotz said. Active engagement is much different than passive screen time.
And during those virtual conversations, it is important to be engaged and keep them authentic, she said, watching faces and “actually picking up on what people are sending out there.”
Lotz uses an app with her own mother which allows them to easily and instantly share videos back and forth.
There also are numerous tablet devices designed for older people.
For people who don’t find technology very accessible, there are other ways to maintain meaningful social connections, Lotz said, like writing letters.
When family and loved ones can’t be physically together, there are ways to show you care and are there for them that just might look a little different.
• Contact Routt County Council on Aging, which has converted offerings online, like Zoom Bingo, Zoom Wellness classes and Zoom Book Club. They also offer friendly reassurance calls, transportation and meal delivery.
• Contact the regional health clinic which has programs designed to engage seniors such as the Northwest Colorado Health Aging Well program.
• Find opportunities for your loved one to volunteer.
• Ensure they have access to internet and know how to use it.
For mental health support:
• COVID-19 Mental Health relief — Colorado Spirit is a FEMA-funded recovery program to provide disaster survivors with community-based outreach, stress and resilience education, and connection to mental health and other community resources. for more information, visit: mindspringshealth.org/colorado-spirit…/
• For more information on The Health Partnership, visit: thehealthpartnership.org/community-impact.
And being on the giving and receiving end are both very important, the health professionals agreed.
Send a loved one stationary, Lotz suggested, so they are encouraged to respond within the context of those meaningful connections. Or go back in forth with care packages, refilling the same box.
Reese said they have been bringing craft projects to residents at Casey’s Pond to send home to their families.
In the fall, residents made posters and sent candy to thank firefighters.
“We are trying to keep in mind — when you are only on the receiving end and do not have the chance to give back — it’s not good for the human spirit,” Reese said.
There have been a number of locally based opportunities for virtual art projects, as well as a couple workshops geared specifically for getting through the holidays.
One suggestion from a workshop was to fill a jar with small pieces of paper with activities, like baking cookies, taking a walk or contacting a friend.
Reese said for the holidays at Casey’s Pond, they are constantly asking “How can we bring good cheer and bring meaning and love and joy into the community in creative ways?”
In your neighborhood, Lotz suggested shoveling someone’s walkway or dropping something small at their door.
That’s not to underestimate the importance of physical touch, Lotz said. “It’s an incredibly important component to this … and we have to recognize a huge piece that’s missing.”
Community reaches out
At Casey’s Pond, Reese said they have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from the community.
It has been a difficult year for both residents and staff, where restrictions have often kept residents indoors and prevented in-person visits with family.
About two-thirds of the COVID-19 deaths in Routt County have been at Casey’s Pond.
And there have been a number of non-COVID-19 related deaths, Reese.
“The staff are grieving, and the residents are grieving.”
On Jan. 4, an outdoor service will be held honoring all the residents who passed away this year. Speakers will project the reading of the names through the residents’ windows.
Reese noted how close the staff and residents have become over the past nine months. “We loved the residents before, but now, we are even more like family. We are providing that loving presence they may not be having from family right now.”
From both residents and their families, Reese said the additional appreciation they’ve been shown has been incredibly special.
And from the wider community, “an abundance of people are reaching out,” she said.
Local students started a penpal program, and delivered art projects. Two woman made 100 candles to be distributed to each resident. One woman offered to buy presents for two residents who don’t have family members nearby. Stockings were delivered to everyone. A group has offered to come and hold a community Bible study.
And that is only a partial list, Reese said.
For anyone in the community who wants to do something, Reese offered a few ideas.
Caroling outside windows is still permissible under current regulations, she said, as long as carolers from different households maintain distance. And they have so many windows, the more groups of carolers the better, as each can hit a few sections of the complex. To set up a time and place in advance, Reese asks that interested carolers contact her first at email@example.com or 970-457-4874.
Stocking stuffers can be dropped off in the front vestibule, with a note of whether they are intended for a specific resident or for anyone. Some suggestions are any pre-wrapped goodies, socks, slippers, soaps, lotion, gloves, scarves, pens, activity books, photography books, journals or calendars.
Any type of gift dropped off will find a happy home, she said.
“We have been so wonderfully blessed by the community and are very grateful.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.
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Colorado updated its guidance for masks in schools Friday, suggesting school districts in the state should consider masks for the unvaccinated and, in areas of higher transmission like Routt County, masks for everyone.