NETWORK FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE

Educate, Engage, Activate

COVID-19 and Older Americans

Since the COVID-19 crisis started, the Network has been working to raise awareness about populations that are bearing inequitable burdens during what is inarguably a very difficult time for us all. In case you have missed them, here are the pieces we have written to date about immigrant communities, those with disabilities, those with autism and communities of color. We are incredibly grateful to those community members 65 years and over who shared their reflections about how COVID-19 is impacting their lives. Sharing our strengths and vulnerabilities can help us feel less alone in this difficult and uncertain time.

Coping with Loss

From the onset of the coronavirus outbreak in January 2020, those with underlying medical conditions and considered to be of “advanced age” were quickly identified as particularly vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infection. As stay-at-home orders began to be enacted, their urgency and necessity were acutely felt by older adults, as were corresponding feelings of loss. As one respondent said, “Living with the necessary COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions makes us ever more aware that the years ahead are finite for us. Air travel is no longer something we assume we will be doing until there is an effective vaccine against COVID-19. With siblings, children and grandchildren living in distant states, in Europe and in other countries across the globe, we wonder about how many more times we’ll be together.”

“At our age,” said a 75-year-old, “it’s not like we have forever. Late in February we cancelled a trip to Ireland when we saw the pandemic coming. Shortly after that we attended the birthday celebration out of state for a friend turning 80. At the party one of the guests said, ‘This will probably be the last trip any of us will take for a long time.’ You know, I think about that – all we planned that we may not be able to do and sometimes, I just sit and cry. Other times I live in denial to give myself a break from thinking about what could have been.  It’s an emotional roller coaster!”

In April it was reported that more than half the COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts were among residents of long-term care facilities, though less than 1% of the state’s population lives in them. One respondent told us “prior to COVID-19, we had easy access to our 90-year-old parents in their long-term care facility and were able to mutually benefit from calls and visits that brought comfort and support. Now, the only contact is on devices that require passwords and tech skills to use.” This lack of physical access to family members in long-term care, combined with the knowledge that such facilities are hot spots for the virus, results in additional fear and stress for family members attempting to advocate for their loved ones.

An article by Ipsit V. Vahia, M.D. in the March 21, 2020 issue of American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry validates these anecdotal reports, stating that the impact of COVID-19 on older adults may include “the distinct mental health impact related to fatality risks from coronavirus, stress around behaviors that may lead to contact/infection (including contact with caregivers), consequences from social distancing and isolation measures instituted by governments around the world and the neurobiological consequences of the resulting stress and inflammation that may increase vulnerability to mental health issues.” 

Vulnerable Populations within Vulnerable Populations

Many older adults not only face stress because of the risks inherent with their age, but also face poverty, have less access to health care than others, and are without the privilege of holding work-from-home jobs. Many elders are among essential workers who report for work daily, putting themselves and their families at risk for COVID-19. In this vein another contributor wrote, “We are saddened by the reports of all the suffering and death…and it seems to both of us crueler yet, that the virus seems to be targeting not only the elderly like us but also, a disproportionate number of people of color and immigrants. We are grateful that healthcare workers do their jobs with such determination and kindness.”

In April, Boston Globe columnist Meredith Goldstein interviewed Bob Linscott, Assistant Director at the LGBT Aging Project at the Fenway Institute in Boston. When asked about the experiences of older adults in the LBGTQIA+ community, Linscott replied, “Many of our LGBT older adults are living alone. This population was (sometimes) incredibly distant from their own families. So much shame was involved, that the gap between their families of origin grew wider and wider. Suddenly, when we’re all sheltering in place, who’s checking on this population?” Today lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender elders are largely invisible to mainstream service providers, while older LGBTs are often invisible within the LGBT community. Linscott offered resources for older people seeking community — and for those who want to volunteer (see end of article).

Resiliency

As with all crises, some elders have also found new ways to build resilience and remain engaged as they await the end of the quarantine. Some have adopted social networking tools like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Zoom, Facetime, Skype, Slack and Google Hangouts as well as the telephone to maintain connections. Some have learned to sew face masks for themselves, for family and friends. One elder wrote, “I was able to take an online course in epidemiology. Being knowledgeable, and understanding the parameters of what a virus is, how it spreads, and most of all, what is necessary for it to be controlled or contained, help keep anxiety and stress levels at bay.”

Dr. Vahia agrees, “even as we assess the impact on aging individuals, we also account for their important contributions in disaster preparedness and response. Research has documented the important social capital, perspective and wisdom provided by these individuals in the form of their experience and pre-existing social networks. Thus, older adults may have important lessons to teach COVID-19 sufferers, as well as healthcare professionals from all age groups.” 

*Resource List

10 Ways to Fight Loneliness While Sheltering at Home (https://www.psychalive.org/10-ways-to-fight-loneliness-while-sheltering-at-home/)

LGBT Aging Project at Fenway Health is a non-profit dedicated to ensuring that LGBT older adults have equal access to the life-prolonging benefits, protections, services and institutions that others take for granted. They offer weekly Zoom drop-ins for LGBT older adults, and are taking volunteers for wellness calls to LGBT elders. www.lgbtagingproject.org                          

Friendship Works matches volunteers with all older adults (virtually and by phone). www.fw4elders.org

The Mindfulness Center at Brown: www.brown.edu/public-health/mindfulness

Center for Mindfulness at Mass Memorial Health Care: www.umassmemorialhealthcare.org/umass-memorial-center-mindfulness\

Pat Jehlen is Senate Chair of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs. For updates/information on the elderly, read/subscribe to Senator Jehlen’s newsletter patjehlen.org.

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