We must combat senior isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's why

Every May we celebrate Older Americans Month, an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of older adults and shine a light on the issues most impacting our older generations. This year, in light of the outbreak of COVID-19, we must focus on the unanticipated needs of seniors as we continue to navigate through this crisis, a public health emergency that has impacted older adults more than most.

The spread of coronavirus in our communities has left a destructive path, not only one of grief and loss but also one of isolation and alienation, particularly for older adults.

Senior isolation is a complex issue that intimately intertwines both public and mental health. And, like so many of the obstacles impacting seniors, incidents of isolation have never been higher.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has escalated incidents of isolation among older adults, especially those in congregate living facilities.  The risks of senior isolation can be fatal.

Around the state, senior day programs have been forced to shutter their doors, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have made the difficult, but critical, decision to limit visitation.

There are basic needs of older adults that must be met in this time, especially food insecurity and access to prescription medicine. However, we must look deeper as we examine what it is our seniors need to continue to lead full, healthy and happy lives.

As we continue to navigate the outbreak of COVID-19, I believe that we must also look ahead. This crisis has helped us to see the cracks in our response and in our preparedness, we must utilize this experience to ensure that we are better prepared for the next emergency that comes our way.

With this in mind, I have introduced legislation (A4007) to prevent senior isolation during periods of public emergencies. By directing the Department of Health to oversee a Senior Isolation Prevention Program, we will ensure that all long-term care facilities will have plans in place to ensure that residents can feel connected to their loved ones, even in the midst of a pandemic or natural disaster.

Under this legislation, long-term care facilities must ensure that they have the technological capability to ensure that residents can have face-to-face or verbal/auditory contact with other facility residents and with outside support networks such as family and friends through the use of electronic or virtual methods.

For individuals with disabilities that may impede their ability to communicate, such as those who are deaf, blind, or have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, long-term care facilities must be prepared and equipped to provide assistive and supportive technology to facilitate communication for residents.

This program will be a vital tool in combatting isolation amongst seniors and other residents in long-term care facilities. Additionally, by keeping residents connected, families will be able to maintain the ability to advocate on behalf of their loved ones.

I applaud the commitment and empathy of the many dedicated staff at our long-term care facilities who have stepped up to keep residents connected to loved ones, often on their own time, long after their shifts have ended. It is my hope that through this legislation, we can ensure that all residents, regardless of which facility they reside in, have the opportunity for connection, especially in times such as these.

I also want to acknowledge the dedicated civil servants who have worked tirelessly to maintain services and support for the seniors in our communities. Advocates such as the directors of New Jersey’s Area Agency on Aging offices have done incredible work to support our seniors during this challenging time.

As we continue to navigate the outbreak of COVID-19, I hope that we continue to make decisions and changes where necessary with the needs of our vulnerable populations in mind.

As Gov. Phil Murphy so aptly exclaims, “public health creates economic health” and I would like to include my addition to this statement, there is no public health without mental health.

Valerie Vainieri Huttle is an Assemblywoman representing Bergen County in the 37th Legislative District.