The global COVID-19 virus has delivered devastation to millions of people in our nation. For elderly Americans living in long-term care facilities, COVID-19 has been unrelenting. Since the early days of the virus, massive infection rates have placed our most vulnerable citizens at risk of further debilitating illness and death. 

To safeguard residents of long-term care facilities from exposure to COVID-19, they have been isolated within their facility—away from each other, away from common areas that promote socialization, and have limited interactions with staff. Furthermore, families are not allowed to visit loved ones. While this type of isolation is being done with the best intentions—to protect our most venerable population from COVID-19 exposure—the healthcare community is learning that this social isolation is also leading to the death of residents.

Currently, there is no nationwide tally of the elderly dying from social isolation and confinement-related illnesses. However, evidence is being compiled through research, as well as through interviews with medical experts and families across the country who are witnessing first-hand that social isolation restrictions related to COVID-19 are taking a toll on health. As of early October, the Kaiser Family Foundation has reported approximately 84,000 COVID-19 related deaths linked to long-term care facilities, but isolation as an official cause of death, or in part thereof, is not a standard practice. 

A recent study of a Chicago-area nursing home found that two-thirds of the residents had lost weight between the months of December 2019 to the end of April 2020—and in some cases, the weight loss was dramatic. The residents’ physical change is attributed to reduced social interaction, regulations eliminating family visits, and changes to daily routines due to the pandemic. Furthermore, confinement, social isolation, and the lack of external stimulation are fueling cognitive decline and depression, which increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Many states have recognized the detrimental effects of social isolation for residents of long-term care facilities and are starting to allow routine visits of family members. Though guidelines vary widely, many restrictions remain to protect residents and vulnerable front-line staff members. Many nursing homes have resumed communal dining and group activities but still require residents to stay distanced from one another. Though a single case of the virus can put a facility back on lockdown for weeks, finding a safe, protective balance seems to be a viable way forward.

The situation in nursing homes is becoming so dire, that many families are seeking options that would allow them to bring their loved one home. In-home care services provide a safe option for families that are watching their loved ones experience social isolation in nursing homes. To aid the in-home care, family members who need help with daily living activities can utilize consumer directed services (CDS) to ensure their loved one is receiving the care they need by a caregiver of their choice. CDS companies, like Emerest Health of Missouri, can arrange screening, hiring and payroll of a qualified caregiver – whether the caregiver is a neighbor, friend or family member. This provides a trusted and happier care environment where loved ones can get the social interaction that they need while receiving adequate care with less risk of contracting the virus. This is just a small step in the right direction, but one that could significantly benefit the lives of our elderly loved ones as we continue to fight this global pandemic.