By Paul Weiss
As the executive director of a national nonprofit that promotes healthy aging, I have wondered if the masses sheltering in place during the COVID-19 pandemic might create some awareness of how older adults live all of the time. Our team spreads awareness about the ongoing crisis older adults face as their world becomes smaller in post-retirement life. Aging adults experience the loss of spouses, partners, family and friends, coupled with personal physical limitations that shrink the footprint of their former lives.
Now, while vaccines seem to promise a light at the end of the tunnel, that flicker of hope is overshadowed by the ugly fact that we can’t undo what has been done. No vaccine will bring back over 300,000 dead Americans. 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 the grim milestone of a full 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 with online courses led by instructors from across the country, making it possible for anyone in the U.S. to participate. Using an online platform and video conferencing, we have been able to provide older adults with social connection and enrichment as they continue to shelter in their homes.
We wish we could 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 55 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. 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.
Now as we seem to be on course to end this pandemic, 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, companionship and purpose.
Paul Weiss serves as president of The Oasis Institute. Visit https://www.oasisnet.org/ to learn more about the nonprofit.