Most people living in senior retirement communities suffer tremendous emotional and mental stress during lockdown, unable to socialize with friends and enjoy their favorite communal activities.
Isolation for this group of people, has been a particular challenge, even greater than the ones many faced escaping Nazi Germany or living through air raids during World War II, they said. Experts who work with older Americans who were ordered to stay in their rooms during lockdowns said the policy could have serious mental health consequences. And some doctors blame isolation, not COVID-19, for the recent death of their patients.
According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Nir Barzilai, the scientific director of the American Federation for Aging research, who has been studying centenarians, said only one has died since the pandemic, a 106-year-old who stopped eating after isolation.
"She's a casualty of COVID-19, but not from the virus, but from the loneliness," he said.
Older people have an extra level of fear from the virus because they know they are more at risk of being hospitalized or dying than their children or grandchildren, and they also know that time is short. While they have the experience and coping skills to deal with this new crisis, they do not want to waste the time they have left in isolation. One retiree in her early 80's told the Inquirer she hates being cooped up.
"Being locked in a prison, that's what it feels like," Gayle Perlmutter who lives in a New Jersey retirement community said. "Here's your food. It's on the ledge."
Older people with mild cognitive impairment appear to suffer the most said Talya Escogido, a Philadelphia psychologist. She explained they have lost their routines that helped them function and the intellectual resources to adjust to the changes. Escogido said new widows are also struggling, feeling "lost and untethered."
Not all seniors are feeling the pain of isolation. Don Fletcher, a 101-year-old retired Presbyterian minister who lives at the same retirement complex as Perlmutter, bought a cross trainer and works out three times a day. He is writing short stories and says he has no problem staying busy, he said, according to the Inquirer.
"I do it quietly and on my own, so the isolation doesn't bother me," he told the Inquirer.
In an opinion piece featured in USA Today, two medical experts said, while the coronavirus is particularly deadly for the elderly — half of COVID-19 deaths occurred long-term care facilities — many do not die from the disease, but because of it.
The authors, Dr. Martha K. Presley, an assistant professor of Clinical Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Dr. Bill Frist, a heart transplant surgeon and former U.S. Senate majority leader, wrote social isolation and loneliness are well-known risk factors for increased mortality in patients with advanced age and disease.
They acknowledged, while implementing isolation is not appropriate for certain senior populations, it is a necessary health policy, but might have contributed to the deaths of many patients who were not infected by COVID-19.
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