Whatever fairy tales the president of the United States repeats about a vaccine, the world has only three imperfect defenses against the COVID-19 virus: wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands.
What that means for millions of old people - the age cohort that dies in the largest numbers from the virus - is to stay home alone.
”I try to remember that I’m one of the lucky ones in all this,” 75-year-old Gloria Jackson who lives in Minnesota, told the Washington Post in May. “What do I have to complain about? I’m not dead. I’m not sick. I haven’t lost my job or gone broke.
“I’m bored and I’m lonely, and so what? Who’s really going to care about my old-lady problems? Lately, when I see people talking about the elderly, it’s mostly about how many of us are dying off and how we’re forcing them to shut down the economy.
“I tell myself I should be more positive. I should be grateful. Sometimes I can make that last for an hour or two,” she says.
She is not being unreasonable. We are all stuck in this hard place for an unknown length of time to come.
Experts have been telling us for years that there is an epidemic of loneliness among old people due to social isolation. Among the health risks are high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
Now, the three rules of dealing with COVID-19 exacerbate those risks while increasing the number of elders who are vulnerable.
Solutions provided by experts in my admittedly limited survey are mostly what you would expect. Here are the most common with some personal commentary.
• Regular Zoom (or whatever platform you prefer) visits with family members or friends.
Although it would not be considered a social visit, I like this for medical check-ins. I read of two women who, before the virus, had met at a coffee shop each morning to do The New York Times crossword puzzle together. They now continue on Zoom.
Last week, I joined my previous in-person current affairs discussion group via Zoom for the first time. It is a smaller group now – six or seven people. I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt more energized than usual when we were finished.
A drawback to computer-assisted visiting is that some elders do not use a computer or are not confident enough to set up an online meeting. But there is the old-fashioned solution for that:
• Telephone visits. I regularly talk with east coast friends by telephone, which we have been doing for all the years since I left.
Some are regularly-scheduled appointments, others are more ad-hoc but frequent enough that it is not exceptional – more like we just haven't had time in the past week or two to get together.
• Some organizations throughout the United States make a point to telephone their members regularly. Where I live, the Adult Community Center does that and in some towns and cities, people who deliver Meals on Wheels make time to stay and chat for awhile – at a distance from one another, of course.
• If you shop for an elder, dropping off the groceries can be an opportunity to stick around and visit for a bit. During good weather, a porch, if it is large enough to keep a distance, can provide a nice spot to sit and talk.
• Everyone likes surprises and another idea I found is to drop off favorite foods or candies or a jigsaw puzzle if that is an interest, and so on.
• Schedule, personal care and exercise. These seem to me to be especially important in maintaining a positive attitude while living under virus restrictions.
Getting out of bed at the same time as BV (Before Virus). Showering regularly, exercising regularly. If you cannot get out and walk, there are many workout routines for various levels of capability to follow along on television and on the internet.
And it helps a lot to focus on the current moment. That's not always easy for me: what should I write about for Monday's TGB? Do I have all the notes I need for a video meeting with my palliative care provider? But I work on it.
Because I control pain (and general well-being) by taking medications at certain times of day, I'm unlikely to break the schedule. Pain – or, rather, avoiding it – is a great motivator.
In addition to all the video and telephone calls, I have hospice home visits at least twice a week in my home. We both wear masks, keep our distance and wash our hands a lot.
Also, once a week, my neighbor and I spend a couple of hours in the afternoon on her lovely deck sitting six or eight feet apart. A little wine, some cheese and crackers and good conversation.
All of that doesn't count daily emails from friends, blog acquaintances and a variety of inquiries regarding TGB.
Plus there are your comments – I read every one of them, almost always on the day they arrive. It is another form of conversation and I learn as much from you as I do from other sources. It has been more than 16 years and I cannot imagine my life without the blog and you.
Now it is your turn. What is your experience with loneliness during this terrible time and how do you deal with it? What recommendations do you have? The virus isn't going anywhere any time soon. We must learn to live as well as we can and as safely as we can.
Remember: Whatever else, wear a mask, keep your distance and wash your hands.