The novel coronavirus and resulting pandemic have altered our lives in many ways. The combination of isolation, physical and social distancing, as well as an economic crisis have all impacted our personal and professional lives. Juggling the ever-changing responsibilities during a healthcare emergency may be overwhelming. The lack of social connections with family and friends as well as in-person visits with your patients can lead clinicians to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Now consider the impact that continued social distancing and isolation may have on the residents and patients within our long-term care facilities. In some instances, isolation of residents has been ongoing for the entirety of the pandemic, entering nearly 6 months!
Prior to this healthcare emergency, a 2019 University of Michigan study on healthy aging noted that 34% of adults aged 50-80 years reported feeling lonely. This current period of social isolation will only exacerbate the number of adults feeling disconnected and lonely and disproportionately affect the elderly population, especially those whose primary social contacts were within their long-term care facility. Furthermore, according to the National Academics of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, “Seniors who are experiencing social isolation or loneliness may face a higher risk for mortality, heart disease, and depression.”
As experts on communication, SLPs know the value and need for social interaction for the mental health and well-being of our patients. We are a major factor in the identification of patient needs and educating patients and caregivers on appropriate and personalized techniques to improve and maintain cognitive, speech-language, and executive functioning. We can start by educating on the importance of social interaction and modeling how to achieve this safely during the pandemic.
In the absence of cognitive stimulation and routine, patients may have trouble maintaining prior levels of cognition. We can encourage and educate on the use of daily orientation techniques and maintaining daily routines – targeting problem solving, reasoning, memory, and sequencing during morning and evening self-care routines. Engage with each patient on a personal level and encourage all caregivers to do the same. Provide insight to caregivers on personal preferences that may enhance engagement.
Socialization and purpose play a critical role in feelings of self-worth and success in everyday life. Encourage the use of personal electronic devices. Provide education on increasing socialization through communication and social media. Encourage residents to write letters to family or “neighbors” within the facility. Foster conversation between residents and caregivers during meals and invite family or friends to “dine” with residents via videoconferencing.
Incorporate training on personalized “home” exercise programs to give purpose and focus to each resident’s day. Develop exercises that capitalize on the routines the resident has already established, such as oral motor exercises and/or breathing exercises during a TV commercial break.
As we evolve as professionals during a pandemic, we must continue to protect and advocate for our most vulnerable residents. With the continuation of the healthcare emergency there is a fine line between protecting those that are medically fragile from this virus while continuing to encourage and promote socialization that is vital to their well-being. As visitor restrictions are lessened we continue to be the lifeline that can bring awareness to the effects of social isolation on our residents in long-term care, and by supporting the facility and promoting each caregivers’ strengths as well as educating in areas of opportunity we are creating a more understanding and supportive environment for our residents.