Margaret Proffitt used to swim at her local YMCA, but when the state went on lockdown, she lost that routine. These days, she relies on the YMCA’s online classes to help her wake up and stretch.
Proffitt is 78 years old and lives alone. COVID-19 has cut her off from two of her closest loved ones — her husband and son, who both live in care facilities.
Across the islands, the doors of most care facilities remain closed to visitors, including family members, during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Technology is useful for maintaining social contact, but virtual connections in the absence of face-to-face relationships often still leave people lonely — a feeling that can rattle a person’s mental health and emotional wellbeing.
In older adults, social isolation can cause adverse physical health effects, too. Evidence suggests that isolated older adults have a heightened risk of early death, dementia and heart disease, according to new research by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
For Proffitt, the hardest part is not knowing how long the social isolation will last. On more than one occasion she woke up in the middle of the night to find herself crying.
Her husband Bob lives in an elderly care home in Waipahu with three other residents. To protect all of them, the nurses won’t let her set foot inside. She understands why. He has dementia and doesn’t recognize her anyhow, she said, but it still would be nice to go in and rub his feet once or twice a week like she used to.
“We’ve been married for so long I feel like he’s still part of my life,” she said. Instead, Proffitt drops by with medications and other supplies that are hard to find these days, like hand sanitizing wipes.
The time with her son Carl is what she misses most. Carl, 55, is developmentally disabled and lives in a specialized care home. Before COVID-19 hit, she’d bring him home every weekend and cook him special meals. He always gets a good night’s sleep at her house, she said.
She tried to get a COVID-19 test to prove that she wouldn’t pose a danger by coming to visit him, but the doctor wouldn’t approve the test because she didn’t have symptoms.
“I’m wondering how it’s affecting him because I know it’s affecting me. That’s the thing that’s really got me concerned is what is this doing to him,” she said. “I’m sure I’m not the only parent that feels that way.”
Having a strict no-visitor policy has been a challenge, said Darlene Nakayama, CEO of Palolo Chinese Home, a nursing home on Oahu.
“Our family members have been understanding. It’s hard, but they’ve come to recognize why we have to do this. All you need is one positive case and you’ve just placed everyone at risk for catching COVID-19.”
Honolulu psychologist Graham Taylor says several of his clients are battling extreme loneliness as they find themselves physically cut off from friends and loved ones.
“People are shutting themselves in either out of fear or because they have preexisting conditions that make them more susceptible to the virus,” he said.
While many circumstances are outside of his clients’ control, such as the no-visitor policies at senior housing communities, he’s helping people identify areas where they do have some control over improving their circumstances.
“They can still reach out to people for connection in ways that are safe,” he said.
Pat Kopesky, 83, is still searching for ways to make that type of safer connection.
As a self-described social butterfly, it’s been difficult to adhere to rules in place since mid-March that forbid her from having visitors, entering into her neighbors’ apartments or visiting with other residents when she encounters them at the mailbox. Kopesky lives alone on Kauai in a 60-unit senior affordable housing community.
“I understand that they are doing it for our own good, however, even with that in mind it’s been definitely lonely,” Kopesky said. “I lost my husband five years ago, so I’m lonely to begin with.”
The term “social distancing” on its own can have an isolating effect, says Taylor.
“It’s a phrase that makes me feel like you’re a threat to me,” Taylor said. “Right now you can’t even see people’s faces, all you can see is their eyes over their masks. That’s a little disconcerting for people.”
Before COVID-19, Kopesky would get together with her daughter to cook, go for long drives, shop for groceries and take walks outside. None of that has been possible since the pandemic started. But they recently made an exception.
On Mother’s Day, the pair enjoyed a walk along Poipu Beach, pointing out turtles to one another while keeping 6 feet apart. Then they ordered food from a restaurant and brought it back to Kopesky’s apartment for a socially distanced meal.
“The manager wasn’t going to be hunting down anybody for seeing their daughter on Mother’s Day,” Kopesky said.
Lawrie Ignacio, another Honolulu psychologist, said she encourages her clients who are isolated to stay connected to their churches online, socialize with friends and family on the phone or with FaceTime and keep their regular appointments.
“The biggest support for folks who are isolated is working with a therapist and maintaining the continuity of that relationship,” Ignacio said.
Despite the shift in his usual activities, Danny Kanahele is striving to keep that sort of continuity in his routine. Like Proffitt, he misses the exercise classes he used to attend. Instead, he got some weights to use indoors as he works to recuperate a hand injury.
“I was in the military so you understand how to maintain life,” he said.
Relationships with the staff at his care home have been uplifting, he said. Throughout the social distancing rules, Kanahele has continued to make his rounds during his morning walk to stop and talk story with a few other residents.
At Hale Makua Health Services on Maui where he lives, the nurses call him “Uncle Aloha.”
Earlier this month, relatives drove by in a surprise parade for the residents. Kanahele’s extended ohana and old neighbors from his Hawaiian homestead neighborhood held up a sign for him from their car.
Even though it was a “look, but don’t touch” parade, it was enough to bring him and his fellow resident friends to tears.
“Truthfully, it was the best parade I’ve seen in my life,” he said. “The feeling was unreal.”
Reuniting with her daughter greatly lifted Kopesky’s spirits. But she continues to long to wrap her arms around her loved ones again.
“You know, I don’t remember the last time I got a hug — and I love hugs,” Kopesky said. “It’s really kind of sad but I don’t think that’s something we’ll be getting back to doing any time soon.”
On Oahu, Proffitt is encouraged that more activities are being approved and life is starting to go back to normal.
After two months without seeing Carl, Proffitt finally got permission to bring him home for the weekend. When they went grocery shopping, his eyes widened with surprise to see how many other people were wearing masks.
“He goes, ‘It’s just like on TV!'” Proffitt said, chuckling.
When they returned home, his joy was made even more clear without a mask. He didn’t stop smiling, she said.
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