COVID-19 and Social Isolation: Two Debilitating Diseases

COVID-19 is an insidious and dangerous infection.  For some, particularly older adults with chronic conditions, it can be lethal as the symptoms of the virus are often more serious among this population. 

In the last several months, we have learned more about SARS CoV-2, the infection which causes COVID-19.  That learning has enabled us to battle the virus both in prevention of viral spread and management of symptoms once infected.  In seniors housing and other congregate living settings, this knowledge has enabled us to keep infected individuals (symptomatic AND asymptomatic) away from vulnerable adults via regular testing.  We have used the information to create small neighborhoods with designated staff that are limited to a specific neighborhood in order to minimize the risk of transmission should an individual become sick.  We have not only accessed ample Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but have taught residents and team members alike to use it properly.  We now understand which vital signs are predictors of a decline—such as declining oxygen levels.  And things like proper hand washing and social distancing are now well engrained habits. 

In addition, in concurrence with CDC and state and local guidance, we have asked residents to stay in their apartments.  Large dining venues and group activities have stopped and are only now starting to resume although in new and still somewhat restricted forms.  

We humans are social beings. Evolution has hardwired us to depend on our connections and interactions with others to thrive.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see below) confirms that while safe shelter and ample food and clean water meet our physiological needs and our need for basic safety: two critical basic elements for survival, love with the associated sense of belonging and self-esteem are needed to support our psychological needs. 

The ability to make and maintain friendships, connect with family, and a sense of freedom and recognition of being valued by others is needed to keep healthy. 

There is considerable research which addresses social isolation among older adults.  It shows a number of negative impacts including increased depression which can lead to illness.  Research also indicates that loneliness can lead to decreased health because it increases inflammation which in turn suppresses the immune system which is needed to fight off infection. 

We in senior housing know this.  So many older adults have sought us out not only for help with physical needs but to foster good human connections.  We knew this before COVID-19 struck and have worked diligently through the crisis to keep people safe together.  Every older adult had dedicated caregivers who were there not only to reduce the chance of disease transmission but to foster closer relationships.   This human connection has been critically vital.  Family visits have changed but they have continued both virtually and with physical barriers to avoid the virus.  Activities increased via virtual means and also continued on a 1:1 in person basis.  And as the crisis has abated and the weather improved, we are increasing activities and connections outside in nature and inside while remaining socially distanced and using universal precautions like masks. 

Our new motto is “Safer Together” which is a nod to both being safe from Coronavirus but also acknowledging that being together – and yes doing it safely – is key to beating disease and even more importantly, maintaining real well-being

To Win, Compete at the Top of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs