NDSU professor says the elderly are especially vulnerable to the negative impacts of social distancing, now and in the future

    Coronavirus has caused crisis and confusion across the planet, with the stay at home order only making people more uneasy in the midst of social distancing and the closing of businesses everywhere to prevent the spread.

    Heather Fuller, professor of adult development and aging at North Dakota State University in Fargo, is launching a study into social isolation’s effects on older adults.

    “The goal of this study is to explore the impact of the social distancing precautions taken due to this current and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on individuals over the age of 70,” Fuller explained. “We seek to understand how they are coping with the pandemic and explore their experiences, circumstances, and challenges during this time of forced social isolation.”

    Fuller and her colleagues coordinate the Linked Lives Research Lab, studying how interpersonal connections impact the wellbeing and quality of life of adults, especially later in life. Fuller’s previous research into social support shows how it fosters good mental and physical health throughout a person’s lifespan, and even extend their life.

    Recently, researchers and practitioners have encountered more reports of social isolation and loneliness within individuals of all age groups, with Fuller focusing her work on understanding the implications of social isolation for older adults, and whether there are ways to reduce or prevent social isolation’s consequences. This pandemic has placed urgency on understanding this social isolation and helping to cope and reduce this feeling.     

    “We hope to better understand the characteristics of older adults coping well during this pandemic,” Fuller said. “We hope a result will be identifying strategies that older adults and their families can enact to better support their wellbeing during social distancing.”

    Fuller noted the unique concerns that the pandemic has spurred in older adults; as many live alone, they may not have family or close friends nearby in these challenging times. If their companionship relies on community engagement or neighbors, they are cut-off, often retired and virtually disconnected as well, unable to use the technology that younger people are using to stay connected. This brought up the question: how are older adults coping with this pandemic? Fuller is seeking to answer this question.

    “Research shows that loneliness and social isolation can put people at greater risk for depression, heart disease, and cognitive decline,” said Fuller. “In this current pandemic, my concern is whether levels of loneliness among older adults will increase and then mental/physical health problems will be exacerbated further.”

    Efforts are being made to stay engaged; Fuller said it’s heartwarming to see a family using Zoom to stay connected, but what happens when an older adult doesn’t have the smartphone to be included? Fuller encouraged connectivity and creativity in keeping engaged during this time.

    With older adults being at significant risk if they were to catch COVID-19, it is important to adhere to the shelter-in-place recommendations.

    “Please understand that people of all ages feel helpless right now, and if you need help, ask for it,” said Fuller. “In our region, we are often fiercely independent and reluctant to ask for help. Please reach out if you need it, and see the people who want to help. Connect and reach out, call to family in nursing homes or assisted living facilities for technology, or even just send a letter.”

    Fuller urged community members to reach out and stay in touch with family and friends, especially those that live alone. Being intentional about staying connected will help maintain health in this time. This is an opportunity for fostering better connections and meaning within family. Create topics to discuss, connect younger generations to the older- and maintain family and friendship in this time, she said.