Empathy for the Elderly: LetterWriting in a Pandemic
Updated: Mar 23
Reading letters from my sister’s eighty-something year old best friend— let’s call her Susan— always brings up an unanswerable question: is isolation an illness? On one hand, loneliness is linked to severe health conditions including increased risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, and a plethora of others. But in today’s uniquely challenging and unforgiving times, isolation is a safety measure— a way to stay away from the COVID virus we fear the most, we would think. Think again.
Social isolation is associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia . And while the past year has arguably been one of isolation for everyone, the past year has been a grueling year for nursing home residents. According to a study performed by Carla Perissinotto, M.D., a geriatrician and associate professor of medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine, found that seniors in long-term near the San Francisco Bay Area said that they would rather risk catching COVID than remain alone and isolated . With the reduced ability to platforms such as Zoom to converse with their loved ones as well as the obvious restrictions on visits from loved ones, the elderly people in nursing are drowned in ragged steadiness of their own breathing.
So, what can be done? Western culture already neglects our elders more than we care to admit. Nursing homes have become a necessary evil for working parents who appease their conscience by sending their own parents to a “safe place to live out their years”. After all, it’s the perfect way to “visit when you want”. Sealed, shut, decision well done. But with this pandemic, “visit when you want” is not an option either.
Susan writes to my sister saying that she’ll never know when she’ll see her grandson next, when she’ll be able to spoil him with gifts and see him wear his new pajamas while he holds her hand. She’s dying from three different infections and he doesn’t even know it. It’s not her place to tell him and it’s not in her power to stop it. But what she can do is write to him, hoping he’ll write back. And he does. He sends her a picture in pajamas and Susan is so elated, she photocopies that picture and attaches it in a letter to my sister.
Write. That is something we can all do. Write to an elder during this pandemic. There will never be an answer to the question of whether nursing homes are ethical, whether they achieve the purpose they sought to achieve and whether they are the best solution for the elderly. But there will be an answer to whether you’re an empathetic person. One letter doesn’t take more than a couple of minutes to write. When the seniors in our society open them, they are overjoyed and treasure them. I hope that whoever reads this will take the time to write a letter to any elder in their life, shining a light in the isolation they face by giving them something to look forward to. And perhaps, something to live for.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663.
Kotwal AA, Holt-Lunstad J, Newmark RL, Cenzer I, Smith AK, Covinsky KE, Escueta DP, Lee JM, Perissinotto CM. Social Isolation and Loneliness Among San Francisco Bay Area Older Adults During the COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place Orders. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2021 Jan;69(1):20-29. doi: 10.1111/jgs.16865. Epub 2020 Oct 9. PMID: 32965024; PMCID: PMC7536935.