NEW YORK — As the coronavirus brings normal life to a screeching halt, America’s seniors are facing a dual threat.
The CDC says seniors are some of the most vulnerable to the virus, but they are also vulnerable to social isolation, which is a public health crisis in itself.
According to a study sponsored by the AARP Foundation, a quarter of the country’s senior citizens call themselves socially isolated. And with more than 50 million Americans over 65, that means loneliness is already a crisis.
“Where they are lonely, that’s where we really worry about increased risks of depression and unfortunately suicide is also a concern. Older adults have very high suicide rates,” says Dr. Stacy Torres, a professor of sociology at UCSF.
Mark Meridy has dedicated his career to helping the elderly. He’s the director of the non-profit DOROT, serving 3,500 seniors in the New York region. The organization’s entire mission is preventing social isolation among senior citizens with both on-site programs and home visits.
The new coronavirus outbreak forced him to make a difficult decision.
“When I informed them that we were suspending the program, there was just an audible sigh in the room,” Meridy says. “Many of them either never married, or don’t have children, or their partners or spouses are no longer living.”
According to the CDC, the elderly and those with underlying health issues are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
“If we were having thousands of volunteers visiting with seniors in their homes, although they’re doing a tremendous service, we’re also putting the seniors at great risk,” Meridy says.
Meridy says the best way to help the nation’s seniors right now is to stay in touch – not by text or email, but by picking up the phone and showing some love. His team, like others around the country, are ramping up their tech coaching for seniors, hoping to offer the option of virtual socializing until the crisis is over.