“I’ve been doing Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom,” Lynn Gallardo, a 71-year-old retired teacher in North Tustin, California, told The Daily Beast. “It’s not the same. It’s boring. I’m tired of doing that. I feel like I’m surviving and not thriving.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic shut down her life, Gallardo, who lives with her 78-year-old husband, would regularly attend a book club and Bible study—and go to the gym three times a week. Suddenly, against her will, she’s become a couch potato. “I do think there’s a lack of mental stimulation. We’re staying up later. We’re watching more TV. We’re sleeping in because we’re retired. And you just get lazy, physically and mentally.”
California has been ordered to stay at home for about five weeks now, with no end in sight. Even when the lockdown is eased, there’s a chance seniors—or the “medically fragile,” as Gov. Brian Kemp dubbed those he wanted to stay inside even as businesses reopened in Georgia—will be told to stay cooped up.
Contrary to the meme of boomer as social-distancing skeptic, Gallardo is doing the right thing by staying home. But elderly people like her face glaring health risks from isolation itself, experts said. A generation famous for rejecting the label “senior citizen” may be in the middle of a major, lockdown-induced decline, and young people may not be able to do anything about it.
Older people “need social interaction beyond what they get via media—such as touch—to feel they are in touch,” said Dan Blazer, professor of psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, and a researcher on geriatric behavioral health. “So functional decline could be dramatic.” Functional decline is a clinical term for the inability to perform the tasks necessary to care for oneself.
Gallardo said she felt the lack of physical contact very acutely: Zoom, she said, is “just not the same as a hug.”
Complicating matters is what might be a unique hurdle among boomers, or at least the elderly: a tendency to reject help from younger people. Gallardo said “six or seven” of her former student teachers offered to help out with tasks like grocery shopping. “I’m fine, and I’m really healthy, so I don’t really need them to do that,” she told The Daily Beast.
Brett Caffier, a 29-year-old furloughed bartender in Los Angeles, has found himself drafted into a strange and unexpected new job: a sort of remote caregiver for his own aging father, who is on the other side of the country in Pennsylvania, and, he said, doesn’t want his help, either.
The feeling, Caffier confided, is “not great.”
According to Caffier, his father has lately been developing a troubling habit of getting health information from, for starters, Fox News, where at least until very recently he would have been exposed to countless monologues dubiously touting malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure. But what really worries Caffier is his father’s habit of receiving talking points from what he described as “an MMA blog comment section,” and then leaving the house, unconcerned about the virus.
Now Caffier makes an effort to police his father’s media consumption, which is not something he ever saw himself doing. “I don’t want to, but I also don’t want him dead more,” he said, adding, “I feel like I’ve become the parent, having to tell the infant to ‘get that out of your mouth! You’ll get sick!’”
“I always figured if I’d ever have to take care of a parent, it’d be further down the road when they’re not mentally functioning at full capacity,” Caffier continued.
The concrete impact on seniors of such prolonged isolation—as opposed to the virus killing so many of their peers—is still coming into focus.
“How is this sporadic isolation different from chronic isolation?” asked Thomas Cudjoe, a physician and geriatric medicine researcher at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “I would hypothesize that there’s a difference.”
Cudjoe’s work was used in a major report on chronic isolation among older people from the National Academies of Sciences released earlier this year. The findings of that report—culled from a mountain of experimental research—indicated that isolation and loneliness were correlated with terrifying physical health effects: a 25 percent increase in the risk for death from cancer, a 29 percent increase in the risk for heart disease, and a 32 percent increase in stroke risk.
Worse, loneliness born of isolation seemed to correlate with a general trend toward anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, the development of dementia, and a whopping 59 percent increased risk of function loss.
Of course, the medical community can’t guess how long this quarantine will continue. Nor do we know how similar the experience of pandemic-related isolation is to the forms of isolation studied by the scientists who contributed to the National Academies of Sciences report. But Cudjoe said to expect, as he put it, “interesting manifestations in terms of who is more isolated afterward, who doesn’t resume going to senior centers, or who doesn’t resume seeing their family at levels they were prior to this.”
Peter Miller, a 37-year-old writer in Los Angeles, has already heard messages like this loud and clear. He supports his 66-year-old mother in “whatever way she’ll allow.”
So far, this has never involved caregiving from her adult children.
But, Miller explained, requests for help usually don’t materialize until situations become emergencies, and her living situation did reach that point recently. He said the only housing she can afford is with a roommate who shows very little respect for social distancing guidelines. This meant his mother needed germ-free fixtures of her own, like a new refrigerator. “She considers the pandemic enough of an emergency that she accepted an uncharacteristic amount of help from me,” Miller said. She allowed him to buy the refrigerator.
Lynn Gallardo, who rejected help with groceries from former colleagues, admitted she may also be slow in tackling minor problems that could worsen. “I have acid reflux,” she said. “I should’ve seen my doctor probably three months ago.”
Skipping necessary doctor visits is a potentially huge problem for older people, experts said, and it may not be solved by flatter curves or relaxed social distancing guidelines.
“We have to communicate that this is serious. But not so much that you should not get medical care,” said Carla Perissinotto, associate chief for geriatrics clinical programs at the University of California San Francisco and a doctor who performs house calls for patients. Lately, her work involves showing up in senior citizens’ homes in the type of getup you might expect: a mask and gloves at minimum, or a more robust suit of personal protective equipment (PPE) if the patient is experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19.
But, Perissinotto explained, we should expect the emerging effects from social distancing on senior citizens to be, perhaps, their own miniature crisis. “We're already thinking downstream in terms of, how do we actually start preparing for the, the surge, which is going to be not the COVID surge, but the post-COVID surge.”
In the meantime, older people may want to give video chatting another try if they didn’t fall in love early on. University of Pennsylvania nursing science professor George Demiris has been experimenting with teleconferencing for at least a decade, and his research suggests it may be a godsend for seniors experiencing loneliness and isolation—if they can access it.
But Demiris also lamented in an interview that what he called “unpaid or informal caregivers” are one of the backbones of the American health-care system for seniors. “The vast majority of people will be asked to serve in a caregiving role in some capacity during their lifetime,” he told The Daily Beast. “So having that dialogue about how best to prepare for that role might be needed in terms of not only the clinical skills or the more hands-on skills for caregiving, but also trying to understand what would it take for our society to deal with this challenge?”
Gallardo, for her part, has to be patient about receiving video calls from her son, who serves as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. military. He checks in “usually on Sundays, in the afternoon,” she said.
But with his own family living out their version of this pandemic nightmare, she explained, there’s only so much time to catch up.
“They’re just so busy.”