Social distancing—or the preferred physical distancing—poses challenges for seniors and residents of senior living perhaps more than any other group. However, it may be more important for them, as well, since they are at high risk for complications from contagious illnesses. Unfortunately, social distancing can lead to loneliness. That’s why it’s important to take a little time to understand why it is sometimes necessary and how to handle it responsibly while still having a good quality of life.
Social distancing is a control action intended to stop the spread of a contagious disease by setting physical distance limits between people. The term social distancing exploded into America’s everyday vocabulary in response to the coronavirus, COVID-19. However, those who live or work in senior living communities know well the importance of protecting residents from contagious illnesses all the time.
Seniors who live in independent living or assisted living communities tend to form friendships and spend a lot of time together. They often eat meals, take part in activities, or go on outings as a group. All of that togetherness, combined with advanced age and underlying health conditions—according to the National Council on Aging, 80 percent of adults 65 years and older have at least one chronic condition—make these folks especially vulnerable to diseases. Sometimes, a little social distance makes good sense. That said, there’s an important distinction between “physical” separation and social disconnection.
The COVID-19 outbreak taught many people the importance of community. People stepped up to help one another, shopping for those stuck at home, leaving gifts on their neighbors’ porches, and writing letters to strangers. Human interaction gets many people, including seniors, through difficult times. In fact, according to Harvard Health and others, strong social connections improve health and longevity.
For these reasons, the World Health Organization actually advocates against using the phrase “social distancing.” The preferred term is “physical distancing,” which means keeping space between people without letting them become cut off from each other.
Many communicable diseases are passed through direct contact with others. Germs may carry through the air—such as by a sneeze or cough—or get passed directly when people touch one another. Some viruses and bacteria live on surfaces that people might share, like furniture or door handles. When one person passes an illness to two or more, then the rate of infection grows exponentially. The situation can also be complicated by community spread when the source of the infection is unknown. Sometimes, simply staying away from other people slows or halts the spread of illness.
Seniors need more protection from contagious illnesses than younger adults. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, seniors are more susceptible to complications from the flu, and flu vaccines are less effective in this age group. Even a common cold might lead to pneumonia in a person with a less hearty immune system or an existing respiratory condition.
Senior living communities like Aviva put the well being of their residents first. They will likely consider recommendations from their own trusted healthcare providers as well as guidelines from the CDC and WHO. In times of rapidly spreading contagious illness, they can implement physical distancing guidelines.
A senior community may limit or prohibit visitors for a time. They may also need to limit group activities and entertainment within the community. These changes require an adjustment, but they’re in place for good reason.
If you are a resident in a senior community, or you have a loved one who lives in one, pay attention to their guidelines during times of heightened concern about illnesses. They should communicate with their residents and visitors about how they plan to handle the situation. Remember that things can change daily, so stay connected by checking the community’s website, subscribing to their emails, or simply paying attention to signs around the campus. And make sure to visit community health resources when you need them and listen to the instructions of medical providers.
Physical distancing is not easy for anyone, but it can be daunting for seniors who already sometimes deal with loneliness. For those with memory issues, disruptions to the daily routine can be especially challenging. These are some suggestions for how to handle physical distancing when it comes to seniors.
The American Heart Association advises that family members and friends of seniors talk to them about the need for distancing and help them understand and get accurate information. “Don't minimize the risks,” they say, “but listen and address any fears they might have.”
It’s more important than ever that seniors feel connected with each other and their loved ones beyond the community. Families and friends should make plans for how to stay in touch when they can’t visit face to face, whether it’s by doing activities while video chatting, writing letters, or using social media.
Encourage seniors experiencing separation and a break in their routine to engage in their hobbies. Activities they do solo, like sewing or crafting, can bring a sense of calm and accomplishment. Some activities formerly involving others might be shifted online, like video mahjong or chess. This website has a list of online games.
Seniors should practice social distancing to reduce the risk of illness during times of contagious community spread. But physical distancing isn’t the same as having no contact between seniors and friends or loved ones. Take the time to learn how to be safe while still having the highest quality of life.
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