By Colin A. Young
State House News Service
BOSTON, MARCH 18, 2020…..The global coronavirus pandemic is something of a double-whammy for senior citizens in Massachusetts and around the world. Not only are seniors especially vulnerable to severe or fatal COVID-19 infection, but the social distancing that public health officials say is necessary to protect seniors threatens to further isolate them.
On multiple occasions since last week, when daily life began to significantly change for millions of Bay Staters, both Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh have made impassioned pleas that people who aren’t at high risk of infection or showing symptoms stay home in order to keep the highly-contagious virus from spreading and infecting someone over 60. Like so many people across the state, each leader is also concerned for the well-being of an elderly parent.
A bout with COVID-19 that might be mild for a younger person would be incredibly dangerous or deadly for seniors, and most especially for those older than 80, public health officials say. In a new report released Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said the United States has seen 15 coronavirus deaths among patients 85 or older, 20 deaths among people aged from 65 to 84, and nine deaths among people between the ages of 20 and 64. The CDC said 31 percent of all cases, 45 percent of hospitalizations, 53 percent of intensive care unit admissions and 80 percent of deaths have occurred “among adults aged =65 years with the highest percentage of severe outcomes among persons aged =85 years.”
“Those are the people who in many cases, if you’re talking about people in their 70s, who dressed and bathed everybody in this room, and a heck of a lot of people across the Commonwealth. They are the people who actually made your lunch and took you to school every day. They’re the people who paid your bills, and in many cases helped you get through some of the toughest parts of your life. And they’re the people who, in many ways, we owe the most to at this point in time,” Baker said Friday when he announced a restriction on large gatherings and other social distancing measures. “And I think it’s really important that we remember — everybody says, ‘Oh, you know, seniors, they’re the ones who we’re the most worried about.’ Well, they’re not just seniors, okay? They’re the people, in many cases, who are responsible for where we find ourselves.”
In a primetime televised address Tuesday night, Walsh touched upon a similar theme — the irony that “through it all, many of the people we want to wrap our arms around the most are the very people we must keep at an arm’s length for their own safety.”
On top of health concerns, seniors and those who love them also have to think about ways to fend off isolation and loneliness in the time of social distancing.
“Last week, I called my mother. I said, ‘Mom, I want to be clear, and I want you to be very careful. This is serious. You have to wash your hands throughout the day and use hand sanitizer. No hugs or kisses for visitors and nieces and nephews. In fact, they probably shouldn’t come over for a while. You need to keep your distance from people. If you need anything from the store, we will pick it up for you.’,” Walsh said during his primetime address Tuesday night.
“She is going to miss the company of family and friends for now, but they’re going to talk on the phone. I know I’m not the only one having these conversations,” the mayor added.
Among the countless Bay Staters having similar conversations with elderly parents and loved ones is the governor. Baker said last week that he typically visits his 91-year-old father every weekend, but that he’s going to have to substitute phone conversations for physical visits over the next few weeks.
“For a guy like that, it’s a much more difficult issue than it is for me,” Baker said of the dangers of COVID-19 for seniors.
There are roughly 900,000 seniors (people 65 years and older) in Massachusetts, making up about 14 percent of the state’s population. About 32 percent of the state’s seniors live alone, according to a report commissioned by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation.
In Boston, there were 88,000 residents aged 60 or older as of the last census, which was more than 14 percent of the of city’s residents. The mayor said City Hall’s Age Strong Commission is reaching out to senior living facilities and service providers, and is sending phone messages in multiple languages. The city is also working to ensure many of the in-home services that seniors rely on — including grocery deliveries and Meals on Wheels — can continue and that home health care workers and personal care attendants have the protective gear they need to be able to continue to serve their patients.
A report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and funded by the AARP Foundation found that 43 percent of American adults aged 60 or older reported feeling lonely. The same study found that the health affects social isolation and loneliness have on seniors are roughly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes each day.
“People at the highest risk of developing more serious illness from COVID-19 and who should be the most vigilant about social distancing will also be the most at risk of increased social isolation and loneliness,” the AARP wrote in an info sheet on social isolation. “Remaining connected is especially important for people who live alone; regular social contact can be a lifeline for support if they develop symptoms. Regularly scheduled phone calls and video conferences along with texting and emails can help compensate for a lack of in-person contact.”
Walsh on Tuesday urged any Bostonians who might interact with seniors to be especially careful about hand-washing and keeping distance. He also proposed that residents reach out to seniors in their neighborhood to “let them know they’re not alone” and to offer a helping hand if it’s needed.
“You might be surprised what it does for your own stress,” he said. “I learned through my own recovery that to keep your peace of mind sometimes you’ve got to share it with someone else, and you get through anything one day at a time.”