‘I’m Really Isolated Now’: When Elders Have to Fight Coronavirus Alone

Mr. Lahn, who is 79, normally runs the center’s Monday bingo program with an older woman who survived the Holocaust. (She did not feel up to being interviewed for this article.) Since the center closed last week, he has been checking up on her by telephone. “I’m wondering at times whether the Holocaust survivors are better prepared than we are for this,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like this.”

Stephanie Cacioppo, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Chicago, who studies loneliness and social isolation, said that the sense of losing control in the pandemic was both harmful and treatable. Social distance need not lead to social isolation, she said. “You can train your brain like you train your body,” she said.

Caregivers and family members should try to help elders feel in control of the precautions they are being told to take, so that they feel involved rather than punished by the new rules, she said. She also recommended asking about public health crises they lived through in the past, including polio or tuberculosis, even SARS or the H1N1 flu.

Clear information helps; alarmist news programs, on the other hand, can make people feel helpless. In a nursing home or assisted-living building, rumors run wild. “Just having someone giving you an update every three hours, saying I’ll see you later, gives people a sense that there is a future,” Ms. Cacioppo said. “It makes seniors not feel abandoned. They see themselves not as objects, but as contributing.”

Lujira Cooper, 72, said she felt this control slipping away. She goes three or four days a week to the Edie Windsor SAGE Center in Midtown Manhattan, the first full-time senior center for LGBT older adults. The center’s closing was a reversal of the common aging experience: She was staying healthy but the social world around her was unraveling.

Also, she missed the arguing and the birthday celebrations — hers was scheduled for later this month.


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