Bridging the generations can enhance emotional well-being for young and old. Encourage patients to reach out to older family members and neighbors!
As the U.S. emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re slowly but surely regaining the freedom to enjoy socializing again. As we reach out to friends and family we haven’t seen in many months, it’s helpful to keep in mind some of the lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among these lessons are the particular harms of social isolation and loneliness. As everyone was forced to limit social contacts to those individuals in one’s own household or limited “bubble,” our social worlds shrank, and with negative consequences. For over a year, many families found themselves separated from older relatives and loved ones and unable to make in-person visits to family members in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and in the community. The emotional toll of this forced separation has been significant. For many seniors the social isolation contributed to a more rapid cognitive decline.
The emotional toll of social isolation was also especially hard for younger people, whose lives were equally upended and who found themselves unable to socialize with peers in schools, universities, and in the workplace. Rates of depression and anxiety have been especially high among adolescents and young adults.
But we’re also learning about the benefits of intergenerational contact in mitigating isolation and loneliness and improving well-being. A report the Journal of the Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine described an outreach initiative early during the pandemic at a med school in Chicago that engaged medical and health professional student volunteers to call isolated seniors who were living in situations at risk for social isolation. The students were provided with suggested topics to guide their conversations, including asking about friends, family, hobbies, life experiences, as well as coping and sources of support. The authors report that the call recipients were also very appreciative of the calls. Equally important, the students described that the experience was also positively impactful and meaningful for them.
While the need to address social isolation was heightened during the Covid-19 pandemic, it hasn’t gone away, even as physical distancing restrictions have lifted. Older individuals benefit from the companionship of younger people and the guidance they can provide with using technology. Younger people benefit from the life wisdom of older adults and the personal satisfaction that comes from doing something meaningful for others.
Here are some ideas we all can do to promote intergenerational connections:
1. Call, Facetime, Zoom ,or visit older relatives you haven’t seen recently.
2. Reach out to older neighbors and to members of your faith community. Consider stopping by with baked goods or flowers to say hello.
3. For those in medical education settings, connect with student organization leaders to set up a volunteer phone outreach program for health professions students to call seniors who may be isolated in the community or in assisted living facilities.
4. Families may consider joining online forums such as “Goodnight Zoom,” which features live story-telling by isolated seniors.
In these ways we can bridge the generations and enhance emotional well-being for young and old.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.