Surviving Social Distancing

May 13, 2020

Matt Kaplan, professor of agricultural and extension education at Penn State, develops and evaluates programs to enhance active engagement among people of different generations. He founded the Intergenerational Leadership Institute, a certificate training program that helps older adults find ways to bring their expertise and enthusiasm to younger members of the community. After his recent Penn State Extension webinar for people who work with seniors on Strategies for Engaging Older Adults in This Era of ‘Social Distancing,'  he talked about some of the challenges we all face when we can’t get together in person.


Besides being uncomfortable, what are some of the bad effects of not being able to get together with family and friends in person?

Holt Lunstad at BYU and her colleagues have done a lot of research on the devastating effects of social isolation and loneliness, both actual loneliness, which is objectively measured, and perceived loneliness, which is a psychological state. There are a lot of negative health outcomes, in terms of brain health and heart health, but the thing that’s most striking is the risk for early mortality. Those studies found that loneliness has as much negative impact on your health and chance to live longer as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

And it’s not just older adults who are lonely. It happens with college students, too, maybe even more. I’m reading a lot from psychology researchers about how the kind of extreme social isolation that we see in the COVID-19 pandemic can intensify anxiety and stress, particularly in people with mood disorders and eating disorders. Disrupted access to those who offer social support or even just a friendly ear for bouncing feelings off can exacerbate these conditions.

You’ve done a lot of work on using digital technology to connect generations, like using an iPad to enjoy a family dinner via FaceTime. Are these approaches helping as we physically distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

That’s where I was going in the webinar discussion, but I got a lot of pushback. My intent was to give examples of high tech as well as low tech strategies for engaging socially isolated older adults, but participants noted many barriers on the high-tech side. There were stories of loved ones who had issues with computer hardware, software, Internet access, and just a basic discomfort with relying on a computer for social interaction.

So some people were saying, let’s just go with what people are comfortable with. There was an insightful comment made by Janice Whitaker, who’s on the nursing faculty here, in response to the question, how do you engage somebody who is sight-impaired and isolated and low-tech and fearful? Her answer was, “gradually.” Find out more about their life, what they care about, what they’re working on. Don’t throw a 3D holographic game at them. Keep it very simple. “I see you have a telephone. Do you use it? Are you in touch with people? Oh no? Is there anyone who you’d like to contact?” So very slowly, you work with them up the ladder of engagement.

What can each of us do to help our older friends and relatives who can’t have visitors or do many of their normal activities?

The first thing we need to do is check any preconceptions we might have about aging and older adulthood. In work or interaction with older adults, we often see an implicit bias, where more attention is paid to needs and vulnerabilities rather than to interests and abilities. You see it daily in the coverage of COVID-19—there’s all this emphasis on how older adults are the ones who are most at risk of contracting and dying from CVID-19, due to a higher incidence of chronic disease and lower ability to fight off new infections.

Communications research shows that when there are stereotypes kicking in, they infiltrate the way you talk and even the way the person who’s being stereotyped talks. There’s a cartoon that shows a young man with a package of toilet paper shouting at an older woman through her window. “I’m here to help you! Take this, you need this, right? ‘Cause you’re not shopping.” And she says, “I’d rather have somebody to talk to.” And he says, “Just take this.” Eventually that woman is going to say, “Yes, thank you so much, just give me the toilet paper.”

It’s ironic because older adults have all this experience and so much to contribute, yet  we often reduce them to a physical need which they may or may not have. We’re not really dealing with the full range of possibilities for human contact, which is based on reciprocity and relationships. I think some of that is kind of getting lost in the media and in how we think about “helping” older adults.

Why is a sense of contributing to others so critical for older adults?

We have to look at it from a lifespan perspective. Are you familiar with the work of Erik Erikson? He wrote about social-emotional development throughout life, that people in each age group have a challenge that is crucial to their personality development. For teenagers, it’s the search for a sense of self and personal identity. For older adults he talks about legacy—a growing drive to leave something of value for future generations. It’s kind of a crisis of self-reflection. You’re starting to question, what was the value of my life? If I die tomorrow, will anybody care? Have I contributed anything meaningful? Have I had an impact? I think it’s a real need, to give back as a way of finding value and meaning in one’s own life.

Ask the isolated person: What are you interested in? What do you miss?

You’ve developed ways to help seniors fulfill that drive by drawing on their experience and knowledge to contribute to their communities. It seems like that part of their life now has been short-circuited.

Yes, but let’s put aside older adults for a minute, and all that they’re losing from this. Let’s look at younger generations. Look at what they lose out from this disconnect. There was an interesting news article recently about high school students feeling so uncertain and robbed of a future and being anxious and so on. There are streams in the intergenerational field that talk about the importance of accessing older adults’ experience—not just what happened, but how they recovered. Their resilience, their survivability.

People who have lived through any kind of war or a hurricane or an epidemic, or some other kind of tragedy where they were worried about food and survival, how did they get by? To a young person that’s worried about “if I can’t afford college because my parents lost their jobs, how am I going to be something,” to hear those stories that highlight the human capacity for hope, resourcefulness, and resilience can be very reassuring.

Let’s get back to the reluctance of many older adults use electronic technology.

What stunned me was how everyone on the webinar talked about this massive fear or resistance or hesitancy about using internet tools like FaceTime or virtual tours of museums and so on. One person at the webinar said, “I have a client who says, ‘I’ve managed my entire life without the need for electronic technology. I’m sure I will be fine now.’” Another person said, “My mom is 96, in a nursing care community. They’re all sequestered. No visitors. My brother brought in a radio, and she enjoys listening to NPR and music on it.” So something as simple and obvious as that. But that’s where people have to not give up. Ask the isolated person: What are you interested in? What do you miss? And you’ll get it.

A radio, that’s great. What are some other low-tech approaches that are effective?

Care packages are really big. Drawings, photos. Put pictures up outside their window. Regular mail, postcards, letters. Ask them to tell stories from their own experiences of difficult times. Use cell phones for calls and games. Walkie-talkies, if you’re outside the window or down the hall. We need to get back to phone calls. Just dial their number.

For those of us wanting to help our older friends and family through this period of isolation, whether by high tech or low, could you boil down your advice to just a few words?

Offer support and assistance, but as I heard in an anti-age discrimination ad in Scotland years ago, "See the person, not their age." Listen to them. Start where they’re comfortable. Take small steps. And don’t overlook their vigor, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and desire to give back.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 13, 2020