Physical Distancing vs. Social Distancing

One headline read, “Just What Older People Didn’t Need: More Isolation” in reference to stay-at-home orders, closures to visitors at many assisted living and other types of group living facilities, and “social distancing” guidelines given in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Within this pandemic is a conundrum: how to address the epidemic of loneliness in the midst of the pandemic that is so easily spread from person to person, especially amongst the eldest in populations.

A change in language may help, and just as soon as nearly everyone learned and quickly adopted this new concept and phrase, “social distancing,” the World Health Organization (WHO) sent out a message with a more literal take: physical distancing.

While people may be physically removed from visiting family, seeing clients, going to the office or school, eating out, and more, it is being encouraged that people maintain their social connections. Feelings of isolation and loneliness have been found to have physical consequences with increased risk of heart disease and dementia.

For many people, staying connected now occurs online using Zoom, FaceTime or other platforms to have virtual face-to-face conversations, send email, play games online together, and more. Not everyone has embraced modern technology—particularly many people who are over age 65—and in those instances a simple phone call or old-fashioned card or letter is recommended to maintain contact and check in.

Here are some other ideas for creating connection while being physically apart:

  1. If you live nearby, drive over and have a “visit” between glass or standing six feet apart. Maybe you can be on the phone and see one another during this time together. In this way, you can each be reassured and see smiles.
  2. Plan to watch the same movie, then schedule a time to discuss it. This can be done with as little as two people or larger groups all gathered on a follow-up call to share what you found funny or not about the film.
  3. Ask for advice. People like to feel useful and helpful to others, not like they are the ones who need help or like they are a burden to anyone. This might give them a project or something diverting to think about. Maybe there’s a favorite dish of theirs you want to try making while you’re at home and they can give you tips, or you can drop it off later? Maybe you need tips on sewing a face mask and they have this skill? Maybe you are searching for a good book to read and wonder if they have a favorite?
  4. If you’re out in the world with your mask on, remember to wave at others you see from a safe distance of six feet to keep up friendly demeanor and the sense of connection.
  5. Invite other family members to send cards or drawings to an elder loved one who is alone, so the burden is not just on one person—you.

As these new routines are established, be sure to keep the same sense of connectivity in place when the safety measures are lifted in the future.

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