Older Adults Face A Double-Whammy: Vulnerability To The Coronavirus And Loneliness

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Jane Poncia writes in a notebook in her office at her home in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Jane Poncia writes in a notebook in her office at her home in East Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Jane Poncia is 87 years old and lives with her cat, Calico, in an apartment in East Boston. Last week, even as public health officials began telling older adults to stay home as much as possible, she remained in good spirits.

“I don't think I’m at such high risk as I might be if I worked in an office or was very close to people," she said. "But, you know, I'm taking care — I'm doing the hand-washing. And if I blow my nose, it's on a Kleenex rather than a handkerchief.”

She only went out when necessary — like a trip Market Basket after realizing that she’d “made an absolute balls-up of ordering something on Peapod."

“I don't know what else I can do short of putting up barriers on the door and not letting anyone in," she said. "And that would be extremely lonely, so I won't do that.”

But that was last week. This week, as the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 spiked in Massachusetts, Poncia started avoiding contact with the outside world as much as possible. Instead of shopping, her son delivers groceries. And rather than meeting up with friends, she’s spending more time on the phone.

Some of the decision to self-isolate has been made for her. Her physical therapist cancelled her appointment, and all the theaters and other public venues she’d normally frequent have closed.

“Obviously it’s not good if [this] goes on forever. But I’m not worried about solitude at the moment,” she said over the phone.

Older adults like Poncia face a double-whammy during the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve been disproportionally affected by COVID-19 — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 45% of all hospitalizations have been for people 65 and older — and the exact thing they’re supposed to do — stay home — puts them at greater risk for loneliness and depression.

While physical isolation isn’t the same thing as loneliness, the two often go hand-in-hand, and studies show that loneliness is linked to poor health outcomes.

“This is certainly a more vulnerable population in terms of becoming isolated as we’re working on ways to curb the impact of the coronavirus in the area,” said Elizabeth LaSalvia, a geriatric psychiatrist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “And as somebody becomes increasingly isolated, they’re at risk of becoming depressed, lonely, having poor self care.”

LaSalvia said she's seen a range of responses to the outbreak, "from anxiety and hyper-vigilance to skepticism and sadness."

"And some [people] are actually accepting it for what it is and feeling very calm about it,” she said.

For those who are already feeling lonely, or for those who worry they might start feeling this way, LaSalvia said it’s important to be proactive.

“We have to keep in mind that there’s a big difference between being physically distant and emotionally distant,” she said.

Don’t wait for family or friends to call you — call them, she said. Or call someone you’ve been meaning to catch up with for a while.

She also recommends establishing a clear daily routine: “Work towards having the same wake up time, the same meal time, the same bedtime. And with scheduled activity in between.”

And finally, she said it can be really helpful to focus on the present.

“Take it a day at a time … and avoid getting lost in emotional anxiety," she said. "This won’t last forever.”

Mary Flynnvon a walk near her home in Brewster. (Courtesy Mary Flynn)
Mary Flynn on a walk near her home in Brewster. (Courtesy Mary Flynn)

Strategies like this are something 69-year-old Mary Flynn has been thinking about a lot lately. Flynn lives alone in Brewster and has been quarantining for almost two weeks because she has serious respiratory problems.

“I don’t think of myself as being a senior citizen, but I am," she said. "And when they started talking on the news about who is most vulnerable, I realized that I’m the perfect poster child. This is tough, this is really tough.”

But she’s adapting. She’s asked neighbors to drop off groceries on her porch, and has been taking daily walks in the woods and spending a lot of time on the phone.

“At my age, I have a lot of friends who are medically compromised, and I’ve been in touch with all of them to make sure they’re okay,” she said.

No one she knows has the virus so far, but some are “struggling emotionally” from fear of contracting it and from having less social interaction than usual.

“I think we’re all different and I think we all handle change differently … But this is something we can get through with patience and humor,” she said. “And fortunately, I self-entertain really well. I can always turn on a rom-com. I’ve watched Notting Hill twice already — so that’s helped.”

This segment aired on March 20, 2020.


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Miriam Wasser Senior Reporter, Climate and Environment
Miriam Wasser is a reporter with WBUR's climate and environment team.



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