An Adjacent Pandemic for Older Adults: Debilitating Loneliness and Lessons Learned

By Paul Weiss, Ph.D., President, The Oasis Institute

In the early days of the pandemic, I wrote an article about the relationship between the pandemic-induced concept of social distancing and the pre-virus “normal” of chronic social isolation among older adults. As the Executive Director of a nationwide nonprofit that promotes healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles, and volunteer engagement, I wondered if the masses sheltering in place — avoiding all social contact and consequentially experiencing feelings of loneliness and isolation — might create some awareness of how older adults live all of the time.

Our team spread awareness about the ongoing crisis older adults face as their world becomes smaller in post-retirement life — a crisis now magnified by the pandemic. Aging adults experience the loss of spouses, partners, family, and friends, coupled with personal physical limitations that shrink the footprint of their former lives. During a time with so little hope, this was a chance to invoke empathy, develop calls-to-action, and draw a stark comparison between our temporary isolation and the unceasing isolation older adults experience outside of the pandemic bubble.

Now, while several novel vaccines seem to promise a light at the end of the tunnel, that flicker of hope is overshadowed by the ugly fact that vaccines can’t undo what has been done. No vaccine will bring back over 300,000 dead Americans. It won’t bring back the millions of lost jobs or decades-old-businesses that have closed their doors permanently. It won’t change the fact that many were forced to seek help from food banks or had to decide between car payments and holiday gifts. It won’t bring back the time we’ve missed with aging parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents — many of whom feel depressed and discarded as we approach a year of life in a pandemic.

Data has shown that the effects of COVID-19 on lower-income, people of color, and essential-worker communities are starkly worse than for other populations. However, no population has been more impacted than older adults. Age-bias and ageism have been shocking, particularly when casually expressed as “choices between the economy and the lives of older adults” by our leaders. It has never felt more vital to implement a mission grounded on the concept of older adult vitality and purpose.

When the pandemic hit, Oasis fast-tracked a new virtual center (www.OasisEverywhere.com) that offers live online courses led by top Oasis instructors from across the country, making it possible for anyone in the U.S. to participate in exclusively curated classes and seminars streamed from any Oasis Center. Using a simple online platform and Zoom video conferencing, anyone can easily explore their interests regardless of geographic location, mobility, or travel constraints. The virtual education center has an expansive menu of online classes to provide older adults with social connection and enrichment as they continue to shelter in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

These efforts, however, do not reach everyone. Older adults, particularly at lower income levels, are most impacted by the digital divide, with limited access to in-home high-speed internet and capable devices. The lack of confidence and knowledge to use socially connecting apps and services is also particularly challenging for aging Americans.

As I consider the challenges faced by Oasis participants across the country, I am also grounded in my own experience. As the primary caregiver for my parents — one in a memory care facility and the other living independently at home — I have a personal window into the effects of the pandemic. I moved my mother out of our family home of fifty-five years mid-pandemic and she is now absorbing the changes. My dad lives in a memory care home — the result of the cruel decline of cognitive ability. Every day, I must be cognizant of my choices to feel safe seeing my mother. Like so many in independent and assisted senior living situations, my Dad is intermittently on “lockdown.” We cannot visit, and staff does not have the technological support or time to help us connect virtually. Combine these limitations with hearing loss, aphasia, and memory compromise, and even a simple phone call becomes a challenge.

This “tale of two parents” is a perfect example of how Oasis can help older adults through the pandemic and beyond. My mother takes Oasis virtual classes to connect with friends and meet others with similar interests. My father, who is increasingly lonely, confused, and feeling distant, is at the most isolated point of his life — and a virtual course is not an option for him. When I consider the tens of thousands of older adults Oasis serves, I see both ends of the continuum in my parents. The damage of 2020 cannot be undone. Even older adults who have been lucky enough to stay well will forever remember this as a year lost — a year they didn’t see children or grandchildren, a year they didn’t spend with friends, a year where regular social interaction was replaced with loneliness and disconnection.

COVID-19 contact tracing reveals that we are truly only a few degrees of separation from everyone in our community. This disease preys on our very core-characteristics of survival — the interconnected environment of every community. It is not in our nature to be alone; thus, it is difficult to make the choice to be lonely in others’ best interests.

I wrote on the topic of loneliness in older adults at the beginning of the pandemic, and now as we seem to be on course to the end, I urge you to remember how it felt. Remember the pain of isolation — and remember that a vaccine won’t make that pain go away for older adults. Older adults are not expendable, and like the rest of us, their souls are nourished through connection. If the pandemic served any purpose, I hope it was to shed light on the fact that we need each other — at any and all ages. Now that we have all experienced a bit of the isolation older adults face, we owe it to them more than ever to make sure the last years of any human’s life are filled with connection, company, and purpose.

About Paul Weiss and Oasis

Paul brings more than 20 years of education, program development, strategic planning, organizational growth and non-profit leadership experience to his position as President of The Oasis Institute — a national nonprofit organization in St. Louis, Missouri, founded in 1982, centered on a mission to serve adults ages 50 and over. Today, almost 40 years later, The Oasis Network includes the Oasis headquarters in St. Louis, a national network of nine educational centers, spanning the country coast to coast, and program partners in nearly 250 communities across the country. Oasis’ tutoring program serves older adults interested in teaching or mentoring through partnerships in education and school districts as well as a new direct-to-consumer virtual tutoring model that brings Oasis tutors straight to your child at home or wherever they may be learning. Our volunteer programs help older adults fulfill the satisfaction of joy that comes with giving back to their communities. Find more information about the Oasis Institute on Facebook at @OasisInstitute, on Twitter at @OasisInstitute, on LinkedIn at The Oasis Institute, or via their website www.oasisnet.org.

Paul is president of The Oasis Institute, a national nonprofit organization in St. Louis Missouri, centered on a mission to serve adults ages 50 and over.