Social Distancing-Social Engagement in the Age of Covid-19: What We Can Do

by Miriam Zucker

I live in New Rochelle, New York, a city whose fame is rooted with the Petrie’s of The Dick Van Dyke show. That image of a suburban family living on a quiet tree-lined street changed dramatically on March 10.  New Rochelle became the first COVID-19 containment area in the United States.

On that date, I was visiting a client. Twenty minutes into my visit, the governor made his announcement. Although I felt fine, after checking with the caregivers to make sure food and medications were in good supply, I left. Not yet knowing what a containment area meant, I shamefully headed to the supermarket, one thirty minutes away from the city where I have lived and shopped for forty years.

For people over 60, of which I am one, the instructions, even before this declaration, was to stay home. I had not taken the directive seriously. But the time had come. So instead of home visits, the telephone has become my link to clients. My weekly tutoring sessions at a local elementary school stopped. The library where I volunteer closed. My world had narrowed. Like the icon I tap when I take that occasional selfie, I now had to reverse my focus, making sure that my social engagement trumped my social distancing.

So, what have I learned that we can all practice and share with adult seniors?

First, is the heightened importance of staying in touch. Communication whether it be by phone, emails or the use of video conferencing is paramount. But sadly, the oldest of the old are the least technologically savvy. This is where letters, especially with a photo enclosed, and cards and drawings from grandchildren will go a long way. Also, contacting a senior’s house of worship can result in congregants phoning members to fill the void created by COVID-19. Local aging in place organizations have volunteers who are also calling community members.

Beyond communication, the significance of a daily routine is important. For older adults who were going to senior centers or adult day programs, their regular schedule has been disrupted. Taking a walk has both mental and physical benefits. Combining this with in-home activities such as watching The National Park Virtual Tours or The Georgia Aquarium Live Cams can lessen the isolation and provide mental stimulation.

Is there a “What not to do?” Definitely.  Cutting back on watching or checking the news continually should be avoided. Dr. Laurie Archbald-Panno, a geriatrician at the University of Virginia, suggests a “news diet.” One news viewing in the morning and one in the evening. That’s it.

The Aging Life Care Association (ALCA) has been creating forums where members can share tips on technology and other creative ways to help clients to minimize the social isolation that can come from social distancing. Aging Life Care Managers are a wealth of resources, and members can log-in to the website for these. Many resources are also being posted on the ALCA COVID-19 web-page.

Our seniors have seen much in their lifetimes. They have lived thru wars, TB, and Polio epidemics and some, the Great Depression. Our government has assured us that at some point the COVID-19 virus will pass. But who better to give us this reassurance than our true survivors, our seniors. Let’s help them as they help us.

Miriam Zucker LMSW, ACSW, C-ASWCM is an Aging Life Care specialist proudly based in New Rochelle, New York.  She is the founder of Directions in Aging, providing consultation and guidance to older adults and their families throughout Westchester County.