Wellness Wednesday: Staying connected with seniors during COVID time (and all the time)


A child greets a senior through a closed window.
An elderly woman greets a young neighbor through her closed window while in isolation to defend against coronavirus infection in Ventura, Calif., April 2020. (Brent Stirton/Getty Images)
Kerry Burnight interview
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Dr. Kerry Burnight is a chief gerontologist for a product called GrandPad. She's a former professor of geriatric medicine and gerontology, and she also founded the nation's first elder forensics center as well as the national nonprofit Ageless Alliance, "united against elder abuse." She spoke with Jill Riley about the importance of connecting with seniors, through whatever means available, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Every Wednesday morning at 8:30 CST, Jill connects with experts and local personalities for some real talk about keeping our minds and bodies healthy — from staying safe in the music scene, to exercising during a pandemic, to voting and civic engagement. Looking for more resources and support? Visit our friends at Call to Mind, MPR's initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.

Kerry Burnight leaning against a wall.
Kerry Burnight (courtesy Tabor PR)

What exactly is gerontology?

Great question. Gerontology is the study of aging, so my Ph.D. covers the economics, the physiology, the biology — as opposed to geriatrics, where that is physicians practicing medicine. Just like pediatric medicine.

We wanted to call on you today to really talk about the word "isolation." That has been a big word with the global pandemic, with COVID-19: the discussion of isolation and loneliness and the impact on seniors.

It's such an important topic. Even before the pandemic, 43% of people over 65 identified as isolated or lonely. Sadly, in today's environment, it's upwards of 90%. And it isn't just older adults: it's all of us, and it has incredibly bad health ramifications.

I think it's always important to point out that there's a difference between being alone and being lonely. If I can just speak from personal experience, I remember going to visit my late grandmother, who was in a nursing home, in assisted living, and she would tell me how lonely she was feeling. You know, my grandfather had passed away, and she was spending a lot of time alone, but I know that she was really missing her family. I would think, gosh, what more can I do? I thought, the best thing I can do is to continue to sit and visit with her. If she were around now, I wouldn't be able to do that with her.

Yes! Your instinct is right on. So, let's touch on lonely, isolated, alone, all these terms. You can be alone, and not be lonely. Also, you can be around people and be lonely. A lot of people, I think, in their marriages, they say, I'm with someone but I feel lonely. Isolation is, objectively, being without other people around; whereas "lonely," particularly chronic loneliness, often arises from isolation and it's equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Those who are lonely have higher rates of cancer, higher rates of stroke, and an incredible rate of increase in cognitive impairment and dementia. So if we can address loneliness, we can improve the health of our loved ones and ourselves.

In your work, how do you address loneliness?

Traditionally, it's been just as you were doing. Your gut was right on! You went and sat and were with your grandmother. In today's environment, we need to do the next best thing and that is, in my opinion, video calls. We're looking at the other person, and if they're hard of hearing, they can read our lips, our expressions. Humans have an amazing way of connecting, not only by listening but also by seeing. So we have had to overcome the barriers in technology that have kept older adults lonely in this pandemic.

Talking about something like GrandPad kind of addresses some of the roadblocks to connection with senior citizens.

That's right. Traditional technology, or standard technology, was designed with 20, 30, 40-year-olds in mind. So of course the buttons are tiny and there's a lot of setup that needs to go on and it requires wi-fi and passwords...what we found is that these are points of frustration and they're prohibiting the effective use. My mother, who is 91, when we gave her, several years ago, an iPad, it just collected dust. She chose not to use it. So we needed to engineer out tens of thousands of points of frustration.

I'll give you one example, and that is, if you feel your finger and your thumb and rub them together, there's some moisture on our fingers. But as we get 80 and above, our fingers become very dry, and tapping a standard screen on a phone or tablet simply doesn't work. So with GrandPad we needed to put on a screen that was really sensitive to dryer fingers. We needed to make buttons that people could see. We needed to include wi-fi. We needed to make sure it didn't have passwords but was entirely safe so that predators can't just call in to you — because financial exploitation is a $37 billion industry. So any solution that your listeners look into for their lonely, isolated, older adults: really be thinking, does this keep out people who would do harm and take money from our loved ones?

We've talked about isolation, the health impact of isolation on seniors, some of the roadblocks to connecting through technology — but also some solutions to think about. All over social media, people who I'm connected to who are lucky enough to still have their grandparents in their life — all of my grandparents are gone, and I miss them very much — but those who are still able to connect with not just grandparents but senior citizens in their life, have been really trying to find some creative ways to connect. I see these through-the-window visits and I wonder...gosh, I know that during this pandemic there's only so much we can do, but I always see a smile on that family member or family friend's face.

Absolutely, and these connections...I encourage people to do the through-the-window part to it. If they just have phones, call! Call your loved one, and if your loved one has cognitive impairment, then use music. A lot of times, in our brains where music is stored is retained even through dementia, so if you can sing a song that a loved one would light up to...the point is, it isn't an option to do nothing. Reach out today on the phone, through a video call, through the window, in sending something if you can, whatever you can do, you're literally saving the life and the wellness of your older adult.

I love the reminder of using music as well. It seems like we can see this light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic. Vaccines are starting to be distributed...but there's still time! Vaccines [are] coming to seniors soon, but we don't want to wait or waste any time.

That's right, and this was a huge problem even before the pandemic. I have patients who are literally dying as a result of isolation and loneliness. So praying that we can make it through this pandemic without losing any more precious life, but even then, it's not a time to think oh, okay, the loneliness crisis is solved. These solutions that you implement now need to continue beyond the end of the pandemic. Also be thinking about: as we age, how we need to put in place ways to stay connected that address the fact that our eyesight will change, we won't be able to hear the same way, we'll have physical limitations and cognitive limitations, and yet we must stay connected.

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