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Protecting older adults during social distancing

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Science  10 Apr 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6487, pp. 145
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb7885

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Social isolation can affect mental health, putting vulnerable people at greater risk.

PHOTO: ISTOCK.COM/IZUSEK

As the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic progresses, social distancing has emerged as an effective measure to restrain the spread of infections. Many people are now confining themselves to indoor spaces and communicating with their loved ones only through the use of electronic tools. This may have a detrimental effect on mental health, especially for adults over the age of 65, who may be less comfortable with virtual solutions (1). We must work to prevent social distancing from becoming social isolation among this vulnerable group.

Social isolation in seniors has been linked to increased depression and suicidality as well as to increased proinflammatory and decreased anti-viral immune responses (24). These effects may further increase the susceptibility of this population to COVID-19. Health care systems and communities must consider the mental health burden of social distancing for the elderly and find ways to keep them engaged and motivated. Mainstream media, such as television and radio, can play an important role by including content focused on the elderly and encouraging seniors to express their views through live calls. Data indicate that the elderly view television as a medium to cope with depressive symptoms and might benefit from such engagement (5). Volunteers can maintain regular phone contact with the homebound elderly population, providing friendship and fostering a mentoring relationship, as it has been shown that adults over 60 years of age find their life more meaningful when they have the opportunity to give advice (6). Finally, existing mental health support hotlines could add outgoing calls during which mental health professionals could reach out to the elderly and screen for symptoms of anxiety and depression. These measures could improve older adults' compliance with social distancing and help reduce the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health.

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