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Supporting older adults during COVID-19 restrictions

I’ve been an emergency physician for nearly 30 years, treating the consequences of illnesses and injuries. In my work now, I focus on opportunities to improve the health of people over 50 years old. Usually in healthcare, we often focus on the failure to thrive. While essential, we must also focus on what creates thethrivers”.  At a time when older adults face unusually pressing health challenges, it’s just as important to ask what allows people to beat the odds and live lives of health and vitality.

The work we do with AARP Services involves looking at what this means, including a positive view of aging, a strong sense of purpose and maintaining social connections, especially in challenging times like these.

Challenges for older adults during COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic causes an unusual amount of stress for older adults, who tend to be more vulnerable from a morbidity and mortality perspective. But because they already face a high rate of isolation and loneliness, they’re also challenged by the physical distancing measures in place to slow the spread. This has a significant impact on people in long-term care centers and assisted living, who are now banned from having visitors and socializing with other residents. It also affects those who are otherwise independent but have hearing or visual impairments. We’ve all seen how challenging it is to communicate through a mask.

It’s understandable to place these sorts of restrictions  during a public health crisis of this magnitude. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the serious health consequences of older adults being isolated from family and friends. Even when we emerge from this crisis, we need to continue our progress in keeping them healthy and connected.

Older adults need more than technology to thrive

For many these days, connections means technology. Indeed, healthcare technology has already demonstrated what can be done to help older adults.  Virtual technology has already brought many benefits to health, education and communication. I’ve been pleased with all the innovation in thinking about how we can transform healthcare monitoring and safety, not just in care facilities, but directly into the home, with wearables and smart home functions. While we might not be physically able to touch, we can still stay social, engaged and learn, even when isolated.

That said, as technology makes it easier for us all to remain in our homes, it may lessen the motivation to leave the home once restrictions are lifted. Even during this time of shelter-in-place, we need to remember the real goal of health technology: independence. We should focus on encouraging what I like to call “independence on the go.” That means, using technology not just to diagnosis and monitor health conditions at home, but to live full, vibrant lives – yes, to thrive – outside of our homes as well.

Changing the perception of aging, and supporting older adults

Especially now, many of us think of aging in terms of decline, and of being immobile at home. We must continue to look not only at these challenges, but at the vibrancy and vitality of aging. We can’t forget the positivity and assets that come with age. Notwithstanding the current crisis, studies show that we are living longer and healthier than we have in the past, and aging better as well.

To change our approach to healthy aging, we should focus on what I call the 3 Ps. These are Purpose, or what gets you up in the morning; People, to support and help you; and Possibility, of all that can be accomplished as someone ages: a vision for tomorrow no matter one’s age.

This isn’t all about safety and fear of falling, but the joy, mobility and growth. As people age, they develop a larger vocabulary, stronger problem solving and pattern recognition and more empathy and wisdom. If we continue to focus on the positivity and growth of aging, even in these especially stressful times, we’re going to improve outcomes and how we live.

For more conversation on achieving the next level in aging, even during COVID-19, please listen to our podcast episode.

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