By Lori Mars, JD
May 08, 2020
Nearly one year ago, Sydney Miller received her undergraduate degree in nursing. The 24-year-old Los Angeles native had been a natural caregiver since childhood, showering attention on her younger siblings, helping her mother with chores, and devotedly tending to her aging grandparents. Becoming a nurse had been a dream since childhood. Her accelerated 15-month nursing program at New York University (NYU) entailed long hours of didactic instruction, clinical practice, and study. Though perfectly suited to the profession and expertly trained, she could not have prepared for the onslaught that lay ahead. For the past three months, she has labored tirelessly in the eye of the COVID-19 pandemic tending to hundreds of patients afflicted with the virus. Sydney works the night shift at NYU Langone Hospital in New York, toggling between acute and critical care units.
With contagion containment restrictions in place, hospital room doors must remain closed, visitors are barred entry, and physical contact is strictly limited. Through the pandemic, frontline health care providers have offered extraordinary medical aid and critical interpersonal connection to those who are alone, ailing, and afraid. For many of these patients, this emotional sustenance provided during illness and uncertainty has been comforting, if not restorative.
Several weeks ago in the acute care unit where Sydney works, an older woman began experiencing respiratory distress, decompensating rapidly and becoming increasingly confused and anxious. While waiting for the critical care team to render aid, Sydney held the woman’s hand closely, stroked her arm, locked eyes with her, and told her to breathe deeply. With Sydney’s reassuring and measured prompts, the woman regained calm as emergency personnel provided treatment. In the end, the woman succumbed to the malign virus that overwhelmed her respiratory function. But, for a precious few moments, Sydney was able to forge a meaningful connection with her patient which provided solace and relief amid her suffering.
The impact of the pandemic has been disproportionately borne by older adults, both within the community and in care facilities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 80% of COVID-19-related deaths have been in the 65 and older cohort.[i] Short of fatalities and illness, the forced solitude and resultant loneliness endured by elders compounds preexisting physical, cognitive, and social vulnerabilities. While pre-contagion isolation was the product of personal circumstance, the current sequestration is compelled by health imperatives and government mandates. Notwithstanding causal differences, for elders detached from communal interaction, the distinction is inconsequential. The effect is the same – compromised emotional well-being and quality of life.
Social connectedness is essential for everyone, regardless of age. Beyond wellness concerns, for older people isolation is a primary risk factor for elder mistreatment. The NCEA and the elder justice community have long advocated the importance of socialization and community engagement to promote elder safety and prevent abuse. This imperative is all the more critical in the wake of COVID-19 disconnection. Outreach to older adults in our lives and neighborhoods is vital. As we collectively embrace a new pandemic-normal and envision a post-pandemic reality, engagement will be an ongoing challenge requiring inventive strategies.
To be sure, there are many opportunities to reach out to those in our lives and neighborhoods and make a difference. Physical distancing does not have to be isolating. Social interactions can occur in many forms, across physical barriers and virtual boundaries. Indeed, while caring for her patient, Sydney was fully sheathed in a protective gown, gloves, eye shield, and scrub cap to prevent the spread of disease. Only Sydney’s eyes were visible to the older woman. Yet through the garb and visual impediments, Sydney was able to form a genuine and profound connection in a moment of great need.
We all need support and care, especially those of us
who may be more susceptible to illness and isolation. This is the time for
professionals, researchers, advocates, and the public to redouble efforts to
advance elder wellness and justice.