For seniors, the isolation of social distancing can come with devastating health effects

CLAYTON, N.C. (WTVD) -- Social distancing avoids illnesses such as COVID-19, but the isolation also brings its own set of health concerns for seniors.

On Susan Patience's well-kempt front porch in Clayton, we kept our distance, for Susan's benefit. She's a diabetic with multiple sclerosis and her underlying conditions and compromised immune system make her more vulnerable to any exposure to the coronavirus. She's spent day after day inside at home since the crisis ramped up in the U.S.

"I don't want to not socialize. I like to be around people," Patience said. "It drives you nuts. It's hard because of the fact that I like to socialize. I like being around people. It makes me feel good. When I can't, it makes you feel depressed."

That's the paradox of this outbreak - preventing the spread of COVID-19 in older adults increases the risks of social isolation - which brings its own set of health consequences. An AARP study compared the effects of prolonged isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

"Loneliness and isolation is already an existing problem for many of our elderly. And the coronavirus has dealt us a big blow," said Nancy Ruffner, a board-certified patient advocate for the elderly in Raleigh and owner of Navigate NC.

The science is clear: isolation accelerates the decline in older adults. It disrupts sleep patterns, alters immune systems and increases levels of stress hormones. Social isolation robs the patience of a crucial need to connect.

"Many of us get up and go about our day-to-day business with purpose. And if we don't have that and don't have a way to connect with others then our world is turned upside down," Ruffner said.

At Meals on Wheels Wake County, volunteers are aware of the issue and doing their best to address it. For hundreds of Wake seniors who count on the program, it may be the only person-to-person contact they get all day. In these days and weeks of coronavirus-fueled social isolation, Meals on Wheels is a wellness check that's more important now than ever.

"Right now we're trying to operate as normally as possible," said Meals on Wheels (MOW) Executive Director Alan Winstead. "We've stepped up our efforts to reach out to people, to talk to people. There's some community resources that will talk to people, especially is they're living alone."

Winstead says now is the time for all of us to check-in on the seniors in our lives from older neighbors to retired co-workers, to the people in your neighborhood -- give them a call, send them a text.

MOW is also providing information to clients about the Wake County Hopeline.

It's a 24-hour crisis intervention hotline offering a friendly ear for an isolated person who's feeling depressed to talk those issues out. The number is (919) 231-4525.
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