Just What Older People Didn’t Need: More Isolation

When the committee looked for promising solutions, it found studies showing that attending exercise programs helped reduce isolation — not a useful approach at the moment. The evidence for much-heralded technological approaches, from robotic pets and Zoom to voice-activated assistants, remains thin thus far.

How, then, to help older people maintain their social connections when they’re supposed to be socially, or at least physically, distanced? Individuals and organizations around the country are proposing and trying a variety of tactics.

Dr. Covinsky, particularly concerned about restrictions on visitors to older people at home or in senior facilities, has suggested that as coronavirus testing becomes more broadly available, family members or friends who repeatedly test negative could become “designated visitors,” permitted to spend time with their quarantined loved ones.

“We have restricted something that’s pretty essential,” he said. “We need to move away from thinking of visitors to old people as optional.”

In Southern California, two PACE programs — federally funded efforts to provide full medical and social services for those aging in place — have leased tablets called GrandPads for their roughly 250 participants. Designed for those over 75, the devices allow seniors to call the PACE center, receive and reply to email, and receive video calls from PACE staff members (and play games).

At the Queens Public Library in New York, program assistants are calling about 50 homebound patrons each week to remind them of programs available by phone and to check on their well-being, said Madlyn Schneider, the older adult coordinator.

In Los Angeles, the Motion Picture and Television Fund has fielded a groundswell of new volunteers for its Daily Call Sheet program, which matches them with older people who share their entertainment industry backgrounds.

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