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The pandemic’s lessons in loneliness and aging in place

October 01, 2020

By Scott Reed

Self-isolation during COVID-19 has shown us what life is like for many elderly people and why we need to address the loneliness epidemic

In June 2019, I wrote a blog titled Elderly care: Can design cure loneliness as we focus on aging in place?, that discussed the loneliness epidemic affecting our older population. At that time, it would have been unfathomable for me to imagine that less than a year later that I would be experiencing my greatest concerns firsthand. COVID-19 changed almost every aspect of my life, seemingly overnight. The reality of sheltering at home was simply not a concept my brain was willing to even contemplate.

We have all been significantly impacted by physical distancing and isolation because of the pandemic. The experience has allowed me to reflect and better understand the serious impact loneliness can have on a person’s health.

Social isolation and loneliness have a serious adverse impact on mental and physical health.

An outside perspective

I have two close friends who read the blog we published last year. Both called me to discuss what they felt were aspects that I had overlooked. One is a friend that, due to physical limitations and long flights of stairs at home, has been limited to working from their home for years, just as most of us are now. Another is an elderly friend who moved into an assisted living facility nearby about a year ago. For this story, I’ll refer to them as John and Jane, respectively. 

Changes in the design of the built environment can work to break the barriers of isolation.

John was quick to tell me that now I understood what they had been living through the last few years and how he exhausted every option to maintain his lifestyle, including technology, communications tools, and delivery services. He also pointed out that visitors were essential to maintaining their happiness and mental health. But COVID-19 had put him in the position of only being able to see friends electronically or having things left at the front door.

Before the pandemic, Jane carefully considered her move into an assisted living facility but did so only with the expectation that she would be able to maintain her normal external activities and that people could come visit. In the days since shelter in place began, Jane has remarked that she has been unable to leave the property or receive visitors. She has also been resistant to using platforms like Zoom or Microsoft Teams as a way to provide any interaction with friends the outside world. Jane is very alone and unhappy.

Create positive distractions while working from home.

What I’ve learned from self-isolation

The proverbial quote “walk a mile in my shoes and you'll understand” has brought home concerns about our ballooning loneliness epidemic. The most important thing that I have learned is that I am a closet introvert. A big part of me enjoys being at home and having limited interaction with others. But I am certain that would be very different if were I not fortunate enough to be working full-time. For those without the daily interaction a job brings, life can be significantly more isolated. This is a circumstance that a huge part of our population finds themselves in now.

I have also found that no matter what I do, the lack of face-to-face interactions is taking its toll psychologically and in turn has had an effect on my health. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I realized that, like John and Jane, I have started to make adjustments in my life in an attempt to not be lonely and isolated. 

Lessons for design

After a while in isolation, I moved my desk from its view of my quiet backyard and garden to directly in front of a window that faces onto the street. My day is now spent watching the activities happening around me. I also schedule video calls with friends each week at the same time to make sure that we remain connected. I’m also fortunate my home has an exterior courtyard that allows two close friends to come by weekly so we can sit at a safe distance and chat. The experience of living through this pandemic has made it clear that architecture can create or inhibit interaction and socialization. I'm reminded of a recent study that found front porches at assisted living facilities created more opportunities for interaction.

While technology allows us to continue to interact, the actual physical interaction—even socially distanced—is essential. The health and safety restrictions implemented during the pandemic has made clear the importance of barrier free design and built solutions that don't require us to quarantine our elders in order to keep them safe. My friend Jane has stated that they have never felt lonelier in their assisted living facility. Changes in the design of the built environment can work to break the barriers of isolation.

  • Scott Reed

    A principal and healthcare architect in Los Angeles, California, Scott believes that we design to make a difference for our communities and people.

    Contact Scott
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