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Older adults with disabilities and our public health crisis

March 24, 2020

By Guest Writer Diana Spore, PhD, MGS

This is a special message from Dr. Spore in the wake of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

An older woman wearing a blue head scarf sits on a couch smiling as she holds a tablet in her hand, as if on a video callThe current public health crisis associated with the coronavirus has affected all of our lives and challenged us to think about what truly matters. Seniors with disabilities are particularly at risk of becoming ill after exposure. As we make this journey of uncertainty together, we need to think about the best ways to connect, avoid social isolation, continue to find meaning and purpose in our lives, and maintain mental health and emotional well-being.

Before this crisis, research revealed that up to 48% of seniors felt lonely, and up to 43% were socially isolated. Sometimes social isolation is by choice. But now, recommended social distancing is not really by choice. There is a real difference here. Social isolation has a negative impact on a person’s cognitive, physical and mental health. Isolation is also associated with elder abuse and neglect.

Research clearly reveals what people need to maintain connectedness and to avoid social isolation. Before this crisis, it was easier to keep socially active, to engage in group activities, to volunteer, to have social relationships in which people were physically close and mutually touchable.

Seniors will need to stay connected and informed. However, for the time being, they will be encouraged to avoid social gatherings and to distance themselves from others physically. Older adults with disabilities may need to become more comfortable with social media and technology. Video chats, emails, phone calls and text messages are great ways to stay connected with family, friends and the community. But not all connections need to be high tech. Writing letters, for instance, is not a lost art among older adults. Hand-written letters can reveal lasting legacies, share memories, and capture the personality of the writer.

Seniors can guide us through their wisdom and life experiences of how to “stand tall” as we face this crisis together. All seniors, including those with disabilities, have so much to offer and can show us the way to “prepare.” (I don’t know about you, but I am constantly told to “prepare.”) The time is now to make sure each senior with a disability has the opportunity to share his or her wisdom and insights, to know that he or she makes a difference.

Diana Spore is an advocate for individuals facing mental health challenges and those who are living with dementia, a writer/editor, and a mental health consumer in recovery. Spore received her Master’s degree in Gerontological Studies from Miami University (Ohio), and earned a PhD in Human Development and Family Studies, with a concentration in aging, from Penn State. She completed postdoctoral training at Brown University. Spore’s areas of expertise include mental health and aging, mental health recovery and trauma-informed care, medication optimization, long-term care, caregiving, and psychotropic drug use and inappropriate drug use among older adults. She is a former Board member of the Mental Health and Recovery Board of Ashland County (Ohio; MHRB). She was Editor-of-Chief of TAPESTRY OF OUR LIVES, an anthology of works created by individuals in recovery, a project that was done under the auspices of the MHRB. Spore served as Project Lead for a “Writing for Recovery” initiative, MHRB, and engaged in all aspects of the project, which has resulted in sustained spin-off efforts. Currently, she is a consultant at the MHRB, and serves as a facilitator of a “writing for recovery” writing group, which is under the auspices of Catholic Charities’ Pathways Peer Support Program, Ashland. Diana Spore has expertise in creative writing, writing for recovery, journaling for caregivers, legacy writing, and advocacy writing.