From generation to generation: Connecting during COVID-19
'I worry that many older adults will become more isolated in the coming months'
This column is a point of view from Emily Boucher, a medical student at the University of Calgary.
For over 200 successive days during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ellen* did not leave her home.
Most days she does not speak, for there is no one to listen. Ellen is in her late 80s and has lived alone since her husband died.
In normal times, Ellen enjoys visiting with family and friends and plays a mean game of cribbage to boot.
Since the start of the pandemic, Ellen has avoided social gatherings, the mall and even the grocery store. Her sons drop off food once a week — a fair exchange, perhaps, for all the school lunches she packed for them over the years.
I met Ellen through an outreach program that supports older adults living in the community. The program sent out an urgent request for volunteers to check in on older adults by phone and fend off an epidemic of loneliness after restrictions were imposed in Alberta in March.
Loneliness is bad for health. It increases the risk of dementia, hospitalization and death, among other bad outcomes in older adults. Even as a first-year medical student, I have met multiple people who did not have family or friends to provide company or care after a nasty infection, a bleed or a broken hip.
In my first phone call with Ellen, I learned that she grew up on a farm, moved to Calgary as a young woman, and moved across Canada multiple times with her young family to support her husband's military career.
Where some people might have seen a challenge, Ellen saw a new adventure.
The benefits of our intergenerational friendship flow both ways. Ellen taught me how to ripen green tomatoes and keeps me up to date on celebrity gossip during our weekly phone conversations.
I provide company and share my insights into "what young people are thinking these days."
COVID-safe garden visits
During the summer, Ellen invited me to visit her garden from a COVID-safe distance. I was impressed by the neat rows of vegetables: tomatoes, potatoes, beans, beets, zucchinis and carrots.
Ellen's most prized flora are her roses, which her family brought to Calgary from their farm over 60 years ago. Ellen tends to her garden herself — it is her joie de vivre.
Summer and fall were good. Ellen was able to spend lots of time in her garden and invite a handful of people for physically-distanced visits. Now that the temperature has fallen and COVID-19 cases are rising, Ellen has returned indoors.
I worry that many older adults will become more isolated in the coming months. Vaccines are coming, but they will not be distributed soon enough to prevent harm. Nor are they a cure for loneliness.
Over the next few months, we can help by reaching out to people in our lives who might be isolated, support non-profits that are tackling loneliness among older adults, and do our part to reduce COVID-19 transmission in the community to protect the vulnerable.
In the longer-term, we can advocate for age-friendly policies, such as those proposed as part of the National Institute on Ageing's National Seniors Strategy.
The coming months will be difficult, but they need not be as lonely or perilous if we can find a little bit of extra kindness to share.
*Ellen is not the client's real name. This article was written with the client's consent.
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