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The elderly face unique faith, connection challenges during a pandemic

FILE - In this July 17, 2020 file photo, a senior citizen holds the hand of a care coordinator at a Health facility in Miami. The elderly are among some of the most at-risk for coronavirus, which means they are also more likely to become isolated as a result of it. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most vulnerable populations to the coronavirus pandemic may also be one of the most isolated: the elderly. 

Six months into the pandemic, many elderly Utahns remain home to protect their health, but as a result, may feel lonely or isolated. 

Faith, once an oasis of connection for those groups, may seem stretched thin. But experts say there are ways to help. 

Connections for the elderly during the pandemic

Many wards of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will start streaming more of their meetings online after General Conference. Other religions have started using Zoom or other video platforms to reach their congregations.

Mental health advocates like Kim Meyers say that is very helpful to those who have not gone to church in months.

“Absolutely. Any way we can decrease people being cut off from their opportunities for engagement and connection, is crucial, and we know people’s faith connections are a big part of that,” said Meyers, who is the assistant director with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

Other ways to connect

And besides the virtual connections, Meyers says people in those faith communities can also stop by and say hi from the sidewalk. Or sit and talk with their older friends and family members outside.

Research shows loneliness is a significant health issue. It can affect physical health, and even lead to early death. Meyers says this pandemic has exacerbated the problem for the elderly.

“Social isolation is the lack of contact with others, while loneliness is the feeling that one is emotionally disconnected. So how do we emotionally connect, while staying safe, is the important question,” said Meyers.

Help from community advocates

Community partners and advocates are working on that.

Afton January, with Salt Lake County Aging and Adult Services, says call your loved ones and check in. They need their family. But they also need their peers.

So the organization has opened a virtual senior center.

“That means older adults who are staying home and staying safe can still have interactions with our staff, with our instructors, and other older people that they normally would have spent time with at the senior center,” she said.

January says the Aging and Adult Services staff has made 7,000 calls every month to seniors around Salt Lake County. Family and neighbors can do the same.

“Obviously call your grandmother and see how she is doing, call your grandad and talk to him about what’s happening in sports right now, or whatever,” she said. “But also see if they are connected on social media. Find out if the older adults in your life know how to use Facebook, or TikTok and some of these fun things online. Do they know how to use Zoom, or Facetime, or other types of video technologies?” 

How else to help

And practice with them. Help them before their church or community class or family reunion Zoom. If you are not sick, you can also go to their home with a mask and set it up.

“Technology is not a substitute for in-person engagement, but it certainly is an opportunity to check in regularly,” said Meyers.

Meyers says older adults often have many medical appointments. That’s when health care providers should screen them for loneliness and social isolation. And the rest of us can find ways to reach out and emotionally connect, while being safe.