Social distancing — the best worst solution
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Social distancing — the best worst solution

Fair Lawn gerontologist talks about the challenge isolation poses to the elderly

Dr. Emily Greenfield
Dr. Emily Greenfield

Social distancing is vitally important. It can slow down the rate of disease transmission.

For us now, in this scary new world, it can help flatten the curve that will keep the novel coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it creates, from infecting all of us. Social distancing can keep the most vulnerable of us from being menaced by the pandemic.

But social distancing isn’t a pure good. It’s an isolation device by definition; the more it keeps people separated from each other, the more successful it is likely to be. It can protect people from physical threats, even microscopic viral ones. But it can’t stop the loneliness and the sense of alienation that people who have been separated from the outside world and its people can feel.

Emily Greenfield of Fair Lawn, an associate professor at Rutgers School of Social Work, studies the elderly and the relationships they need to keep them thriving.

The solutions that the novel coronavirus forces on all of us is not well suited to the elderly, although it is necessary for them. “It’s so unusual, because usually, when we have hardships facing large populations of people or within communities, our inclination is to come together and find strength and solace in our relationships and in community,” Dr. Greenfield said. “But public health experts and medical experts continue to tell us that the thing to do is to distance ourselves from each other.

“There is sociological research on the importance of communities for health and wellbeing.” In normal times, “when people lose their other social roles, when they don’t go to work, when their kids are out of school and so they’re no longer part of a school community, they need to find other ways to be with other people. For many, it’s volunteer groups and senior centers and recreation centers and gyms and libraries and synagogues.”

They can’t do that now.

“This is a really challenging time, with social infrastructure shutting down to protect people,” Dr. Greenfield said. “Those places are supposed to be operating for the good of the people.”

She’s heartened by the move to create virtual communities online. “People really are trying,” she said. But it’s hard. “Even within families, you have to watch out for our older adult neighbors and loved ones – but at the same time you have to stay away from them, because they are at risk. The best thing that you can do for them is to distance yourself from them, but that is so challenging.”

It’s particularly difficult, Dr Greenfield said, because you have to stay away not only if you are sick, but all the time, because by the time you know you’re sick, you’ve already had time to infect other people. “The best analogy I’ve read about this is that catching the virus is like watching the light from a star.” That’s because the starlight you see has been traveling for years to reach you. Doctors believe that it can take up to two weeks for a Covid-19 infection to turn into a palpable illness. So, “how many people do you know now who will get sick? You won’t know until two weeks from now.”

It’s not an issue only for older people, Dr. Greenfield said; it’s just that the disease seems to be worse the older you get.

The best solution — because all of this choosing between bad options, working toward picking the least bad rather than the absolute worst — is using online video programs. “It allows you to see each other from afar. It is a compromise, and it is far better than nothing.

“I would leverage the digital community that people have available,” she said. “Make regular check-ins by telephone and video conference, many times a day.”

Social scientists differentiate between social isolation and loneliness, Dr. Greenfield said. Social isolation is an objective phenomenon; it is about the number of human interactions people have. Loneliness is subjective; it’s all about how people feel about it. “Loneliness is the feeling that your social relationships are not what you want them to be,” she said. “It has to do with your perceptions of the quality of your relationships, and has a lot to do with your own expectations. So if you expect to see people at Shabbat services, and have a nice conversation with your daughter the next day, and those expectations are not being met, then you can experience a feeling of loneliness.”

While technology cannot stave off feelings of loneliness, it can help with social isolation, and that matters. Even if a virtual conversation does not meet a person’s longing for in-person interaction, “it still might prevent people from being socially isolated,” Dr. Greenfield said. “The interaction still has benefits for their health and wellbeing. It has value. Conversation is important.”

She also gives a warning. “There is a contagion to depression. If you are around people who are stressed out, it is catching. It is good to be mindful of that, to not offload your stress, but to have it in check.”

Dr. Greenfield was gratified by the talk that Bergen County’s executive, James Tedesco, gave last week, when he talked about closing the schools. “As a gerontologist, I was very glad that he mentioned older people,” she said. “There might be a growing consciousness of the aging population; hopefully, once this passes the social infrastructure they need won’t be taken for granted. That infrastructure is the lifeline.

“There are a lot of older people who are homebound for other reasons,” from even before the coronavirus hit. “There is some innovation around virtual senior centers; there are special devices for people who have age-related hearing or vision issues, like special iPads that can be loaded with apps that older people can find very useful.

“Maybe as a result of this, synagogues that serve people of all ages can think of solutions that will benefit older people. Maybe we can leverage social awareness and have leaders step up and say yes, we can bring this to our communities.”

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