Cassidy McKay’s grandparents, Mildred (left) and Ted McKay (right), before the pandemic, on their 60th wedding anniversary. 
PHOTO: CASSIDY MCKAY.

It was over a year ago when I last embraced my grandparents in a hug. I remember leaving their care facility in the north of Calgary, when my grandma said, “Can’t wait to see you next week Cass,” as they took turns hugging me at the entrance of their tiny room. Little did I know that I would not be able to hug, let alone be within six feet of them, for more than a year.

Now I stand outside my grandparents’ porch in the freezing cold, their faces brushed a light pink  from the freezing air. They can’t tell that I’m smiling under the thick layer of fabric that covers my nose and mouth, muffling my speech.

My grandpa is hard of hearing, so I have to raise my voice in order for him to hear me from six feet apart. I tell them about my week or weeks since the last time we spoke, as they sit on their little patio chairs, dressed in their huge parkas, trying to stay warm. They weren’t able to leave their tiny room in over four weeks as someone had contracted the COVID-19 virus in their care facility.

Since then, they get their food delivered to their door three times a day, along with their pills administered by one of their nurses.

“I have never felt so alone and isolated from the world.”

Ted Mckay, on the effects of covid-19

This time spent outside with me is the most social interaction they have throughout their lonely days sitting in their rooms. This is especially hard for my grandpa, as my grandma is struggling through the early stages of dementia.

“The highlight of my week is when I can see my grandchildren’s faces, even if they are through a fence,” my grandpa, Ted McKay explains, as he tells me about his lonely days in his room.

He spends his days taking care of his wife of 65 years, whether that’s helping her take her medication, or making her meals.

“I have never felt so alone and isolated from the world,” he says. “I can’t even go for walks outside because of my bad hips, so I am really in this small space for weeks at a time.”

Seeing the daily struggles of my grandparents through the social isolation caused by the pandemic, has shown me the gravity of loneliness. There is much more media coverage surrounding the negative effects of how social isolation can impact one’s mental and physical health. 

The stigma surrounding loneliness has somewhat subsided, however what most people don’t realize is that loneliness was a huge issue even before the pandemic.

Ami Rokach, a clinical psychologist and professor from York University in Toronto, and specialist on loneliness, says that loneliness is not something that the pandemic brought into the world.  

“If people were feeling lonely before COVID-19, they’re going to feel lonely throughout it, and even after,” says Rokach.

However, Rokach explains how it is not something that individuals have to experience during their life.

“It’s not a fate,” he says. “We need to remember that just like from time to time we feel hungry and we know what to do about it, from time to time we will end up feeling lonely.”

Rokach suggests that individuals need to look at loneliness as something that can be fixed, and not something that is a medical issue. It is not a condition that one has to live with, but rather an internal alarm that alerts someone that they need something, whether that be self-care or social stimulation.

Increased difficulties in isolation

Right now is especially difficult for seniors living in care homes.

In the majority of care homes, visitors have been highly restricted –  if not prohibited throughout the pandemic. This makes the individuals in these facilities especially lonely, in comparison to other age groups dealing with the pandemic, as there is not a whole lot elders in these homes can do when dealing with the negative emotions associated with loneliness.

Seniors in care homes struggle with loneliness throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 
PHOTO: CRISTIAN NEWMAN.
Royalty Free Image. https://unsplash.com/photos/CeZypKDceQc

Since the older generations are at such high risk of getting the COVID-19 virus, they are experiencing a more strict isolation than the rest of the population. Additionally, many seniors in these homes have either lost their spouses or live far away from their families, making it difficult to have visitors.

Having someone to talk to during this time is very beneficial for anyone in these circumstances, especially with many of these individuals having limited knowledge on technology. 

Melanie Bennett, a nursing student from Memorial University in Newfoundland, came to Calgary in the summer of 2020 to work at a seniors’ care home as a part of her practicum. Her role was entitled companion care and she would spend her time talking to elders who were really suffering from loneliness.

One lady she remembers had no visitors the entire summer, as her family lived out of province. 

“I would talk on the deck with her for hours while I would help water her plants, we would look at pictures of her travels to ease her mind,” Bennett explains.

Combating loneliness

Having social interaction, whether that be through a fence, a phone call or through nurses in the care homes, can really help combat the symptoms of loneliness for elders.

Loneliness is something that a lot of individuals experience throughout their lives, but is not something that is necessary. We can combat these feelings during the pandemic by taking the time to enjoy being by ourselves, while reaching out to others even if that be virtually.

Taking the time to talk to elders, especially in care facilities,  in the community is also a great way to cope with your own loneliness, and help lessen theirs.

 Right now, we have to show people that we care by visiting them often from six feet apart, or by picking up the phone. With all of the technology out there, it is easier to stay connected to others throughout this time.

Younger generations should make an effort during this time to visit their grandparents, or other older individuals close to them, to help them get through this tough time. Asking the nurses at care homes about the regulations surrounding visitors can help one navigate the best ways to stay in contact with their loved ones. 

Seeing my grandparents faces as I pull up in my car to visit them is what makes me feel not alone during this time. I see them from afar waiting on their front porch for me, as they scan the area for silver SUVs.

I know how much they look forward to the time my brothers and I spend with them on the odd weekend. Even though it is only for a short period of time,  I know that it will help them feel less alone in this scary world.

 I just can’t wait until I get to cross the fence and into their arms, whenever that may be.