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Rutgers gerontologist discusses strategies for older adults to stay connected and active

30-Mar-2020 11:50 AM EDT, by Rutgers University-New Brunswick

Older adults, especially those who lacked robust social networks before the outbreak of COVID-19, are at high risk for social isolation, said Emily Greenfield, an associate professor who specializes in aging at the Rutgers School of Social Work.

Many seniors who relied on libraries, senior centers and restaurants for daily interactions no longer have access to these places. Older adults also are encouraged to limit physical interaction with family members outside their homes – a cornerstone of social connection for many people in later life.

Greenfield talks about resources and strategies to maintain social connection and physical activity for homebound older adults during these difficult times.

What does social isolation mean for older adults during the coronavirus crisis?

Leaders in the field of aging are encouraging older adults to find ways to connect with others while still practicing social distancing. In fact, some are advocating that we talk about using the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing” because it acknowledges that social-relational connections are possible even in the face of physical distance. I use the term “socio-physical distancing” to refer to the practice of limiting in-person social interactions with others to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

What are some resources older adults can utilize? 

Similar to people of other ages, many older adults can access tools on the internet to connect with others. The idea that older adults are digitally “in the dark” is more myth than reality. While it is true that internet use is more prevalent among adults in younger age groups, research indicates that, over the past two decades, internet use among adults ages 65 and older has increased dramatically.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, professionals in aging were innovating and expanding the use of digital platforms to make social opportunities more available to homebound older adults. As one example, Selfhelp Community Services’ Virtual Senior Center is a program that brings the long-standing practice of group-based educational and social programming into a digital environment that is designed specifically for older adults at home. 

What about those without digital resources?

Adults who lack access to the internet at home are encouraged to take advantage of telephone-based programs, such as personal reassurance phone calls. These programs involve designating an individual, such as a volunteer or professional, to call a homebound older adult regularly, providing a social contact and ensuring that the older adult is okay. Older adults with hearing impairment might need special equipment to benefit from phone-based services.

How can older adults develop intentional strategies for physical activity?

Research consistently demonstrates the benefits of physical activity for later life health—physical, mental and cognitive. Mobility disruptions during this COVID-19 pandemic can quickly lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which can have health repercussions. 

With adequate internet access, older adults can use online resources to facilitate exercise and physical activity within their homes. The National Institute on Aging, which primarily focuses on advancing research, offers online videos to guide older adults in at-home workouts. Silver Sneakers, an organization that facilitates access to older adult fitness classes through Medicare plans, offers its members more than 200 videos for home-based workouts. Older adults without internet access can benefit from telephone-based programs. In New Jersey, some Medicare plans offer telephone-based health coaching programs. Older adults (or family members, friends and professionals who support them) should call their provider for potential options.

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