Vulnerability of seniors, isolation from friends has been a terrible lesson: psychiatrist

There is no point in paying tuition if we don’t learn anything. The months of the pandemic have cost us dearly. We have endured many months of worrying about health, grieving for lost lives, experiencing an economic crisis and listening to an endless series of updates filled with both information and threats.

Through the lockdowns, closures and restrictions, we have been given an opportunity to remember what is really important. Isolated and separated from one another, we can recognize the value of personal relationships. Family and friends, even casual acquaintances, turn out to be much more fundamental than work, money and possessions. Who knew? Postponing or cancelling weddings, parties and holiday trips turns out to be much less disruptive than the inability to visit the sick and the elderly. The most painful prohibition during the pandemic has been the medically-necessary protection of the elderly. The vulnerability of older adults, in the community as well as in residences, has been a terrible lesson during these past months.

A family I know had their 90-year-old mother and grandmother admitted to the nursing home during the pandemic. While this was a planned admission, the family hadn’t anticipated that they would have to leave her at the front door, unable to help her settle in her room. The woman spent six weeks in her room without any visitors and died there. Even after her death, the rituals of
funeral, mourning, visits of condolence, all were restricted by social distancing rules. Another woman I know, living in an assisted living facility, said (over the phone), “I feel like I am in prison. It is a very nice prison, but…”

The terrible losses in care facilities make it clear that these restrictions have been unavoidable. The price has been very high. We are social creatures, designed to live in groups and interact frequently and regularly. Working from home, chained to computers and telephones, is not the same as being together. The inability to touch one another, hug, shake hands, and experience the presence of others both intimately and casually, forces us to recognize that being human is grounded in connecting with others. Even shopping is different in person than online. The replacement of stores with the efficiency of Amazon may be an economic and administrative triumph, but it comes at a human cost.

We will not return to the world of 2019. If we have paid a terrible price during the pandemic, and continue to live with uncertainty and danger as the virus continues to wreak havoc with our world, at least let us emerge with our humanity intact. Let us embrace one another again when it is safe to do so. Nothing is more important, more precious and, as we have seen, more vulnerable, than our connections with one another.

Michael Eleff is a psychiatrist living in Winnipeg.

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