Shelter in Place: Tipping Point For The Oldest.

July 25, 2020

Shelter in Place: Tipping Point For The Oldest.

May 29, 2023

When you’re 102 and a thread of your carefully constructed life is arbitrarily pulled, the resilience of the weave can give way very rapidly. Such is the case of Shirley, a resident in a community for older adults. In the mere two months of having to shelter in her apartment due to the coronavirus, she went from being mildly confused to completely lost.

There is no “Zoom-ing” out of this kind of decline at her age. It is vivid proof that social isolation is a very serious health challenge in this country, particularly with the “silver tsunami” starting to crest. It happens quickly and is irreversible for the oldest of old. What a way to spend the last days of your life.

The COVID generated mandate to “shelter in place” was the tipping point for Shirley. Mostly in her apartment for two months with meals delivered, personal shopping, daily activities provided, Zoom calls with her family and doctor . . . none of it was enough. What she needed were the casual, interpersonal contact and conversations, movies, lectures and walks outside in the neighborhood she relied upon to keep her mentally acute. As her world shrunk to the garden and her apartment, she resorted to her bed, depressed, lost and her health began to decline. She just moved to the Memory Caring section and is continuing to lose ground. (Shirley subsequently passed away in June.)

There are also seven Holocaust survivors in this community. You can only imagine the memories that confinement brings up for them. It is stunningly sad this late in life, when each day is a fragile gift that could be their last, that they have not been able to live their days to their fullest for in these past months.

While I paint a grim picture here, I must temper that with the amazing humanity and love which staff, families, and volunteers have shown. Children write letters to residents whom they don’t know, fresh flowers complement the meal trays, implementing scheduled family visits, free lifelong learning classes conducted via the internet, personal food shopping etc.

No one gets to “de-select” the aging process – it is an inevitable result of living that requires tremendous resilience. Whether older adults live alone in their own homes or in community with others, social isolation is an invisible health issue that the COVID environment has exacerbated. We’re seeing an increase in the frailty, emotional and cognitive decline with the oldest of old being hit hardest. If there ever was a time for kindness and the need for the salve of intergenerational contact, it is now and within all our ability to practice.

Candiece Milford is the Managing Director of Marketing of Rhoda Goldman Plaza, a non-profit residential community for people needing assistance or memory caring. She’s President of the Board of Directors of At Home With Growing Older, a non-profit whose mission is to educate, inspire, and connect people across generations/disciplines to re-envision and improve the experiences of later life.

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