"The wisdom and experience of older people is a resource of inestimable worth. Recognizing and treasuring the contributions of older people is essential to the long-term flourishing of any society." — Daisaku Ikeda
Undoubtedly, our COVID-19 sequestering has resulted in an epidemic of isolation and loneliness [Brittany Lyte, 2020]. No group bears the brunt of this more than our elderly, who, in the best of times, are faced with social isolation and a sense that they are no longer needed. That COVID-19 affects the elderly and infirm more harshly than other groups makes them even less visible as they try to stay fully sequestered for their protection. Yet, to adhere to our democratic ideals set out a little over 200 years ago, we must engage with all members of our society, even those who are out of sight for the time being.
Resilience is not just an individual feature. It is an aspect of organizations from the smallest club or company of 2 or 3 up to our greater society in our home country and general human society across the globe. The notion that, when we increase the resilience of our community, we help everyone is not a new one. The Romans aspired to this [Forbis, 1996], and Confucius articulated a societal vision that still informs many institutions and societies in Asia [Confucias, 1992]. In the face of this unprecedented pandemic, we see people adapting and making heroic contributions to society's resilience.
In our society, Our elderly lead increasingly separate lives. This separation seems to be an unintended side effect of a nuclear family model that rapidly evolved after WW2 and still flourishes to this day. The shelter in place orders combined with the inherently higher risk that COVID-19 poses to the elderly has magnified this and led to a crisis that we can not ignore. Just as a team is more effective when all team members are engaged, our democratic society functions best when it includes everyone. This isolation became more apparent when COVID-19 hit our convalescent homes. Suddenly people could not show up in person to visit relatives in the health care facilities for the elderly and infirm.
Many found the images of family members visiting with relatives in nursing homes through windows, with the elderly relative quarantined on the other side of the glass, to be sad. I found it poignant to be sure, but I also see it as a demonstration of our adaptability, our resilience in action, and our dedication to our elderly. I experienced this with my parents. My mother is in a skilled nursing facility and separated from my dad, her husband of 55+ years. My mom has dementia. In the best of times, the ups and downs and the steady melting away of her memories and everything that make her who she is nothing short of heartbreaking for the people who love her. She can't use a phone, because, without the visual cues, she can't recognize who is calling. She has no idea how to use a smartphone. The Shelter in Place orders and the facility lockdown where my mom resides meant that face-to-face visits were a thing of the past. My dad and I have a real fear that, without visual contact and stimulation from us, my mom will forget who we are at an accelerated pace. It is deeply distressing.
We had to come up with ways to enrich our interactions and keep her engaged with us. But her inability to use a phone and the moratorium on even through glass visits left us adrift. Rescue came in the form of a selfless, outwardly focused person, Cameron, a physical therapist at the facility. He arranged for us to have FaceTime video calls with my mom using his private cell phone. He holds the phone and works it for her, all while he encourages her to recognize us and speak to the images on the little screen. When my dad asked if he could drop off some candy for my mom (she has a major sweet tooth), Cameron, immediately recognized that my dad should not be going out as he is also in the high-risk category. This man, who we barely know, insisted that he would get the candy and make sure my mom knew it was from us.
Cameron's kindness, enthusiasm for his patients, and his willingness to take a few extra steps have made an enormous difference in our lives. He has made us more resilient with his generosity because he has given us hope, the single most significant contributor to resilience. My dad and I are happy knowing my mom is okay and that she still remembers us and can interact. Our experience with Cameron is another example of how little things, simple things, can bring us together and increase our individual resilience and that of our society as a whole.
One final note about Cameron: I find his selfless attitude comforting and inspiring. When I thank him for everything he does that is above, and beyond the call of his duties, he insists, no, that it is part of his job. He is a physical therapist, and facilitating phone calls isn't part of his job. Still, he is a super resilient person with a personal mission that extends to the selfless support of patients and their families in whatever way possible.
In the spirit of little things making a big difference in the lives of the elderly, from the start of the Shelter in Place order, people in my neighborhood have been checking in more often on our elderly neighbors. It is often just a matter of standing 6+ feet apart or talking through a window with them. Or offer, as some of us have, to shop for them. A couple of people in our broader neighborhood helped some elderly neighbors to make online grocery delivery orders. All these interactions took just a few minutes and were fun (especially just talking with these people who have seen so much more of life than us younger folks.)
As a bonus, I (along with everyone I've met who has contributed in these ways) feel more resilient, have more hope, and can see a way forward in the midst of all the devastating pandemic news. These good feelings underscore another aspect of resilience that we will address in future articles: one can improve mood and access hope (even in the face of one's own sadness and sense of desolation) through selfless contribution to others.
It does not take much effort to blunt the sharp pain of isolation in the elderly. All one has to do is show up, ask questions, offer to help with simple tasks, and, most importantly, listen.
This blog was published by Bottom Of The Box, LLC a Palo Alto-based company founded by a psychologist, Michael J. Montegut, and educator, Julia Lee. The company mission is: To empower all people to access and strengthen their resilience. To encourage people to embrace realistic optimism as their default thinking. To provide people with the tools and inspiration they need to rise to life’s challenges with confidence and grit. To convince everyone, in every interaction, that they have the strength and resilience to do their part to move humanity forward.
Michael J. Montegut, PhD is a Psychologist who has done work in Human Vision, Human Factors, Personality measurement, and Positive Psychology. He is also a father, poet, blogger, TEDx speaker, gardener, accomplished home cook, Hospice volunteer, and many other things. Michael has overcome numerous life challenges and learned to engage his resilience in the face of health challenges, failures, disappointment, and loss. He enjoys helping teens and adults to discover, embrace, and exercise their character strengths and their natural resilience.
Julia Lee is a public relations manager for young talents, graphic designer for local businesses, and a media arts teacher in Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD). She has faced many obstacles in her life, but that has not stopped her from achieving her goals in life! Meeting kind people who supported her in her journey has strengthened and fueled her desire to give back to the community. Julia has strong, positive relationships with students, parents, and others in the community, and she enjoys providing them with life solutions that lead to a solid, resilient core.
Confucias. (1992). Analects (D. Hinton, Trans.). Washington, DC: Counterpoint.
Forbis, E. (1996). Municipal virtues in the Roman Empire: The evidence of Italian honorary inscriptions. Stuttgart,
Lyte, Brittany, 2020. https://www.civilbeat.org/2020/03/coronavirus-is-spiking-levels-of-anxiety-panic-and-stress/
Visionary. Optimist. Tech-savvy and results-oriented .Loves to sing during her almost non-existent spare time. Her motto: Dream BIG
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