By Betsy Morris
Society hasn’t figured out how to protect the elderly from coronavirus without imposing another very real health threat: isolation. For more than 100 days in some places, residents in nursing homes and retirement communities across the country have been separated from spouses, children, grandchildren and friends of many decades. Residents have been kept apart, eating meals in solitary.
The actions are well-intended. Covid-19 has caused more than 56,000 deaths in about 11,600 long-term care facilities in 44 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
But there are unintended consequences. As scientists learn more about how the human brain works, they are getting a clearer picture of neurological and physiological changes that occur when people live in isolation. These changes may help explain why living alone with little social interaction is often implicated in higher rates of cardiovascular and other types of disease, worsening dementia and Alzheimer’s, and shortened lives.
Plenty of research shows that social support and social “integration,” which refers to a person’s varied roles and responsibilities, play a big role in determining someone’s health and longevity. “The combination of social isolation and loneliness is very unhealthy for anyone, but for older adults, it’s particularly bad,” said Bert Uchino, University of Utah psychology professor who studies the ways in which social relationships affect health. “Just about every biological system is impacted in one way or another by psychosocial relationships.”
The pandemic has been soul-crushing not just for the isolated elderly, but also for their children and care givers, who often have to follow strict rules they know might be as bad as the disease. “Everybody is trying to protect them. I understand. But this is not the right way,” said Atouria Bodaghi, a registered nurse at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix.