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Should you stop visiting elderly loved ones because of coronavirus?

Last Updated Mar 10, 2020 at 2:55 pm EST

A resident sits in her room at a seniors' residence in Montreal, on Jan. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Pearl Jam is postponing its spring tour. Italy is locked down. Reporters are no longer allowed to troll the Maple Leafs locker room, seeking out scapegoats. Don’t shake hands, don’t share sips, don’t rub your eyes and stay the hell off cruise ships.

The list of people, places and behaviours to avoid in a world besieged by novel coronavirus anxiety continues to grow.

Eddie Vedder may not be your cup of tea, but should you still steep some Tetley with grandma?

As COVID-19 continues its seemingly unstoppable spread around the world, protecting the elderly has become a key objective.

Just last Friday, French president Emmanuel Macron bluntly encouraged people to stop visiting senior family members. “We must avoid visiting our elderly relatives as much as possible,” Macron said while touring a retirement home in Paris.

Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of Geriatrics for Sinai Health System and University Health Network (UHN) thinks that’s très stupide.

The health effects of loneliness

While Sinha acknowledges that older people are more susceptible to falling severely ill or even dying from COVID-19, he stresses that social interaction is crucial to their mental and physical health.

“We know that COVID-19, like other viruses, particularly impacts older adults or adults living with compromised immune systems,” he told CityNews. “So, of course people are worried now and say: ‘Should I go visit grandma this weekend at home?’ Or, ‘Grandma is in a long-term care home, should I even be going?’ And I think the answer is ‘absolutely.’ It’s probably in grandma’s best interest for you to spend time with her, but you want to be conscientious.”

That means making sure you’ve had your flu shots, washing your hands frequently, and avoiding visits when you’re suffering from symptoms of an illness.

“Older patients benefit from the socialization, it prevents loneliness and isolation. I respectfully disagree with the French president, who I remind people is not a doctor,” said Dr. Sinha. “You’re probably more likely to die of loneliness in Canada then you are at the current state of COVID-19.”

“You’re probably more likely to die of loneliness in Canada then you are at the current state of COVID-19.”

According to Dr. Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist at York University who’s studied loneliness for the last four decades, it can indeed contribute to death.

“Stress in general weakens the immune system,” he said. “And loneliness causes stress so it can bring about all sorts of problems like high blood pressure, it has been shown to contribute to diabetes, it contributes to cardiac problems, and it intensifies the illnesses the person already experiences. Loneliness contributes not only to emotional issues like depression and low self-esteem, but to mortality as well.”

Maintaining contact during a quarantine

Rokach says if an elderly loved one does find themselves in a quarantine situation, or under self-isolation, it’s important to maintain contact with them and clearly explain to them what’s happening and why.

“When an elderly person sees that no one comes (to visit), they say, ‘they forgot me and I just don’t exist.’ But if they could be helped to see that it’s a temporary condition and it is done because they are cared for, because they are important and it is to protect them.”

“They can connect with family and friends through internet, through Skype, through the phone,” he suggested. “(They) need to be reminded that it’s a temporary situation, it’s done to protect them because they are important.”

Social distancing

Rokach says it’s not only the elderly who are susceptible to loneliness and social distancing in the wake of COVID-19.

As more and more people avoid simple acts like shaking hands and hugging, some may begin to feel alienated.

“The effect is that we are distancing, we are doing it for a good cause, but we are distancing,” he said.

“Now, how that distancing is going to be interpreted depends on the individual. Some people will say that intensifies the loneliness that I already had, now I can’t even touch (anybody). Other people will say ‘I know it’s temporary, I really would love to give them a hug, but I understand there are some conditions that prevent it. And it will change with time.’ ”

The effects of social distancing can be especially devastating to the Chinese community. A recent poll found that 1 in 7 Canadians would switch seats on a bus if a Chinese person sat beside them.

Rokach says that kind of stigmatization and social shunning can have long-term ramifications.

“The community is basically saying because something is wrong with you, we don’t want any contact with you,” said Rokach. “I think it could give way not only to a lot of loneliness, but a lot of anger and resentment, (and) it may be a long time before that is overcome.”

Should children be kept away from the elderly?

We know that the elderly have weakened immune systems, and children are germ magnets. So, should children and the elderly be separated until COVID-19 blows over?

Sinha says children should be treated no differently, assuming no signs of illness are present.

“Really, the idea of not physically visiting each other is only relevant if one of the two members is actually sick and there’s a risk that one can pass the infection to the other,” he stressed.

“One of the greatest joys that my older patients have is actually seeing their grandchildren,” he added. “They want to see their grandchildren, they want to see their kids.”

Sinha says he sees the effects of loneliness every day on the job, and it’s crucial that elderly people maintain social connections.

“We have about 1 in 4 older adults in Canada right now who tell us they don’t have a family member or friend close at hand who can help them with a basic task, like getting a prescription filled. So, there’s a lot of people who are quite isolated who are older adults. Social isolation increases your risk of depression, loneliness and other issues.”

“Our older patients actually do better when they see their loved ones.”