Hidden Health Crisis: Elderly in Nursing Homes are Dying from Isolation, Not COVID-19

As coronavirus restrictions continue across the country, including in California where holiday gatherings of “more than three families” are being banned Governor Gavin Newsom, we are just now coming to grips with the incredible toll they are taking on our health, especially in nursing homes and communities of elderly people.

A few years back, former surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy warned that the world is suffering from an “epidemic of loneliness” that is robbing all of us of our health and well-being.

Today, the situation is perhaps more dire than ever before, and nursing home residents are among those most at risk.

Chester Peske, 98,  of Robbinsdale, Minnesota northwest of Minneapolis is just one cautionary tale of what happens when elderly people go from engaged and social to isolated and lonely.

Peske, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, could still recognize his children when they came to his nursing home location for weekly visits, according to a recent report from NBC News.

But that all changed after his facility was locked down due to COVID-19 concerns.

Peske eventually tested positive for the coronavirus, although he was asymptomatic. But the biggest health threat came not from the virus, but from Peske’s isolation.

While he previously had been able to recognize his children in their visits, the isolation took its toll on the formerly social Peske.

When his daughter visited him early this spring, he had changed almost completely, and suddenly became a dying man inside and out.

“His head was down into his chest, and he was sitting slumped in his wheelchair,” his daughter, Tammy Roberg, said according to NBC News. “He was not his perky, chatty self.”

He had become quiet and disengaged, even when the staff members worked with him, according to a nurse as quoted by Roberg, and had been losing his appetite while also losing weight. He still had no coronavirus symptoms.

One June 2, Roberg got the call she had been dreading: her father was dying, and she needed to come right away.

As Roberg made her way to her father’s room of residence, she was forced to undergo temperature checks, and to put on gowns, gloves and face shields.

By the time she made it up to her father’s room, he was already gone. The heartbreaking scene is becoming all too common during the coronavirus situation, which is affecting the elderly more than any other age group, begging the question: are these “quarantines” really helping anybody all that much, and could they actually be hurting our eldest residents?

“After three months separation, Tammy missed her only chance to see her father by minutes,” while she was busy putting on personal protection equipment, the NBC News story concludes.

Peske’s death certificate listed the progression of Alzheimer’s disease and “social isolation/failure to thrive related to COVID-19 restrictions” as his cause of death.

In other words, the nursing home’s policies passed down by lawmakers played a serious role in his death, as they have for at least nine other Minnesotans according to the article, almost all of them long-term care residents.

“The isolation is robbing them of whatever good days they have left — it accelerates the aging process,” said Joshua Uy, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, to NBC News.

“You see increased falls, decrease in strength and ability to ambulate. You see an acceleration of dementia, because there is no rhythm to your day. There isn’t a single part of a person’s life that isn’t affected.”

The heartbreaking scene is playing out in far too many nursing homes.

Dr. Louise Aronson, a geriatrician and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, is among those who have seen it first hand.

“Sometimes the doors to their rooms are open, and you just see someone sitting in a chair with tears running down their face,” she said. Aronson is currently assisting in San Francisco during a time of coronavirus restrictions.

“People ask me, ‘Is this the rest of my life? If so, I don’t want to go on.’”

Researchers warn that the things could get worse in the fall and winter months, while health advocates are imploring people to stay more connected to their loved ones during these difficult times.

“We too are concerned about prolonged social isolation for our residents,” the American Health Care Association, which represents for-profit long-term care facilities, said in a statement.

“With cases rising in many parts of the country, we must be vigilant about protecting our nation’s most vulnerable, but balance that with the need to stay connected with loved ones.”

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