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Avoiding infection can lead to isolation, especially for seniors, but experts offer strategies for healthy connections

A woman wearing a protection mask peers through the window of a nursing home in Vitoria, northern Spain, where several elderly residents were infected by the novel coronavirus, on Thursday. Experts say elderly people should practice social distancing to avoid being sickened, while also taking steps to stay active and connected with friends and relatives during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Alvaro Barrientos / AP)
By Treva Lind and Chad Sokol The Spokesman-Review

Catherine Van Son sees an opportunity in the pandemic.

Millions of people are hunkering down in their homes to avoid getting or transmitting the novel coronavirus – including seniors who are most at risk of dying from COVID-19 and children who have been abruptly set free from school.

“This would be a really good time for intergenerational bonding,” said Van Son, an associate professor and geriatrics expert in Washington State University’s College of Nursing. “I really think we have two generations who are stuck at home and don’t know what to do with themselves, and putting them together might be a good thing.”

While the typical heads of household – middle-age adults – are busy working remotely or tending to other duties, tech-savvy kids can teach their grandparents or other elderly loved ones how to work their smartphones and communicate remotely using video-chatting technology, Van Son suggested.

Grandparents, she said, can use those channels to help the kids with homework or art projects – all without the risk of face-to-face interaction.

This is just one way older Americans might adjust to life in self-isolation.

Seniors, especially, should avoid visitors to minimize their exposure to the virus.

But Van Son said social distancing does not have to mean sitting at home without participating in leisurely activities.

Van Son said it’s important elderly people stay active and look after their health during the pandemic, even if they no longer can attend gyms or take laps in the swimming pool.

She recommended “Sit and Be Fit,” a series of seated, low-impact exercise routines developed by a registered nurse in Spokane. It’s a good way to look after one’s well-being, both physical and mental, Van Son said.

She noted seniors should take advantage of home delivery options for groceries and other essentials and reach out to friends and family members for support.

“It’s a learning curve for all of us,” she said. “I think it’s a matter of using really good judgment. There’s no reason why you can’t walk in your yard, sit on your porch, go for a walk in your neighborhood.”

Sarah Arpin, an assistant professor of psychology at Gonzaga University, offered similar guidance. Humans by nature want to gather with others in times of crisis, but now many aren’t filling that social need, she said.

Arpin is concerned about health consequences – beyond COVID-19 – from prolonged loneliness if people end up spending weeks stuck at home. Science links prolonged loneliness with serious health issues, both physical and mental.

Such feelings of loneliness, research indicates, can elevate levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to inflammation in the body that can damage blood vessels and other tissues, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature death.

“The consensus among researchers is that prolonged experiences of loneliness negatively impact health,” Arpin said. “Prolonged loneliness is linked to depression as well.”

She’s urging people to think about reaching out regularly with phone calls or video-chatting technology to isolated seniors and others experiencing loneliness.

“Many people don’t realize that this health pandemic will have particularly dire social consequences for many of our already isolated community members,” said Arpin, who researches loneliness and its links to alcohol-drinking behavior and sleep deficits.

“Everybody in times of crises and stress – we all want to be with others. That’s ingrained in us as social animals, but now we can’t physically do that for a good reason,” she said. “But this can be a really challenging and isolating time for people who already are at risk for feeling lonely – young singles and older seniors.”

She also encourages people to think outside the box to find people in need of social check-ins, even with cards or letters.

“If the idea of calling a stranger is worrisome, think of someone in your community, maybe in your workplace, church, your neighbors,” Arpin said. “Even if they’re not in your family, you can give them a call.”

She has mixed feelings about social media, because it can be good to step away if news becomes overwhelming, but it’s also a tool.

“I think now is the time we can really use social media to our advantage and should be relying on that to connect with others, in addition to just giving them a phone call or FaceTiming,” she said.

Arpin has noticed one social benefit arising from the pandemic: more people waving on the streets, as she and others step out for walks or fresh air.

“More strangers are waving to me, and I find I’m wanting to wave to them,” Arpin said. “It’s a feeling that we’re all in this together. … If anything positive is going to come out of this, it could be a reminder that we are a community and how much it’s important for us to have social interactions.”