Despite scant evidence that much has changed medically in the US since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, Americans have begun to insist that we “open up” again. We have concluded as a society that as destructive as the virus is, some things are even worse.
And to be fair, a case exists for these calls for freedom. Since early March, suicides have increased among all populations, as has measurable depression. Mental health challenges are immense, and the discontent of our populace is palpable. We are frayed, and scared, and alone. And one way to combat this is to escape our basements and rejoin our peers in community.
People want to work. Yes, they have to—but recent studies have shown that what people miss most about teleworking are the benefits of face-to-face connection and social interactions.
People want to learn. The data are overwhelming that kids from kindergarten to college learn less while in a remote setting, and that is only measuring what we care to measure—the nuts and bolts of their standardized curriculum. But we also know that the other things we learn in school—management, friendship, socialization, personal skills, and teamwork—suffer when we are quarantined.
People want purpose. Volunteering has plummeted since we have isolated. So has coaching. Mentoring has declined. So, we push to go back, so that we can give back.
But most of all, people have realized that they need to not be alone. After three months in our houses, we recognize that it just feels wrong. It is unnatural. It is inhumane. We need connection. Able-bodied people, even those of us with fantastic families, secure employment, and unfettered access to technology, feel less than ourselves without daily, in-person engagement with others. We hate being isolated, and we’re willing to brave a deadly pandemic just to avoid being shut in and isolated from our peers.
For most of us, this will be temporary. Science will get us out of it. But for our oldest citizens, it often ends only with death.
Too many seniors endure this reality every day. Many cannot work. They have little access to educational opportunities. We don’t ask them to give back. They have only a TV or a computer to entertain them, to inform them, to engage them. And we’ve all seen by now that these mediums are a poor substitute for human connection and interaction.
According to the New York City-based nonprofit DOROT, social isolation and loneliness are linked to adverse health consequences, including depression, cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity. Furthermore, research shows that social isolation erodes a person’s health as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Our seniors are our loneliest citizens. Thirty-five percent of older adults report that they are socially isolated. Due to their partners’ deaths, or their own illnesses, far too many live alone and go days without interacting with others.
I believe that for those of us who emerge from COVID-19 physically unscathed, it may serve as a midlife cancer scare. A reminder that life is precious and too short. A reminder to turn away from our technologies and hug our families. To seek purpose. To be better.
But let’s work to ensure that there is more. Let’s hope that these months of isolation and solitude remind us that for too many older Americans, loneliness is a killer. It is 15 cigarettes a day, a literal cancer.
Loneliness is killing people. If you chose to ignore it before the pandemic, you can’t now.
It’s on all of us to recognize the impacts of loneliness on our seniors. Let’s start in our own homes with the small personal changes that feel right. Call your dad. Visit your neighbors. Teach your kids older people are assets to be treasured and mined, not as “others” to be locked away.
But we also need massive organizational and structural changes in our society driven by the premise that older people are indeed people, and we have an obligation to protect them when necessary and to utilize them when appropriate. In California, some foundations, including the one I lead, are working with our governor to create a Legacy Corps where seniors are called upon to mentor, teach, and counsel young people. For now, it will be virtual, but when safe, we will create avenues for a massive cohort of older citizens to sit in rooms with young people, side by side, and work with them, for the benefit of each group, and for us as a society.
Loneliness is killing people. If you chose to ignore it before the pandemic, you can’t now. You’ve lived it. It made you less than human, and it devalued you as a person. Our seniors have endured it for decades. Let’s make their loneliness a casualty of this pandemic.