Published on Dec 16, 2020

Video Transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] JOHN WHYTE: Welcome, everyone. You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, Chief Medical Officer at WebMD. Are you feeling lonely? What about your parents, or your grandparents? When's the last time that you've seen them? As we battle the COVID pandemic, we're having some unintended consequences. And one of them is loneliness. To help address loneliness and provide some insights, I've asked Lisa Marsh Ryerson-- she's the President of AARP Foundation-- to join me. Lisa, thanks for taking time today.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: I am so happy, Dr. Whyte, John, to be with you talking about this critically important subject.

JOHN WHYTE: I want to start off with some startling statistics that I found on your website. 17% of adults aged 65 and older are isolated. 26% have increased risk of early death due to subjective feelings of loneliness. And 46% of women, 46%-- almost half-- aged 75 and older live alone. I had no idea of the scope of this problem.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: Well, first of all, thanks so much for visiting the website and, really, learning more about it. You certainly see it in your own work and practice as well. But loneliness and isolation were a huge problem pre-pandemic, and they have only increased since the pandemic. So we really have to understand that those numbers are going up. And also, you've been talking about both isolation and loneliness. And we know that they can be related but they're different.

So loneliness, as you said, is subjective. It's whether or not you or I feel that we have a reliable network, people we can count on, the connections that matter to us. And social isolation is objective. It's about the size of our social network, the frequency and quality of our contacts, and whether or not we have connections to critical community resources. And when I share that with you, you think about the work at AARP Foundation in ending senior poverty. Likely it is no surprise to you that older adults who are low-income suffer from isolation at greater rates.

JOHN WHYTE: But we're seeing the impact of loneliness on people's physical health and mental health. So what do you say to people-- I want to address this up front-- that will say, hey, you know what, we're trying to control a pandemic, an infectious pandemic, but the consequences of social distancing, of avoiding crowds, is having potentially an equally devastating impact as well? How do we help address that?

I'm not saying I agree with that reasoning, but let's put that out there. How do we know how we put that in the right perspective? Because every elderly person isn't the same.


JOHN WHYTE: A 65-year-old with no health conditions, or relatively few, is not the same as a 75-year-old with significant congestive heart failure or COPD.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: That's right. And again, as I would expect with all of the great work that you lead and helping people understand about their health, you've hit right to the heart of the issue. So I'm going to repeat again, I want everyone who is listening to us to know that social isolation was a huge public-health crisis even pre-pandemic. Why do I repeat that? I worry sometimes, John, that individuals will think it's tough now, in this time, but there's going to be this return to whatever we thought normal was. And we may forget that the condition continues for others and, as you said, is related to earlier death from all causes.

So what I say is that we cannot let physical distancing become social disconnection. And we have to follow the guidelines. We're speaking at a time when we're seeing surging again across the nation. And I know that the CDC has just come out again with really great and very strong recommendations about how we enter the holiday season. has a range, as you're reporting, of information, and really a trusted source of information for all of us. But just because we can't be together, that should not mean that we can't connect together. We just have to be more creative.

JOHN WHYTE: You know, Canada has been using the term physical distancing, not social distancing. And I think in some ways, the nomenclature that we're using can be making the problem worse. But let's talk about solutions. That's why I was excited to bring you on board, because you just kind of set where we are. So how do we address it? How do we make it better, even if at the margins?

LISA MARSH RYERSON: Yeah, let's talk about that. But I'm so pleased that you picked up on-- I use that. I didn't know the Canadian language of physical distancing. Because words matter. I don't know if you've heard this, Dr. Whyte, but lately I've heard some friends and connections say, oh, it's so terrible. We have to cancel the holidays. And I immediately jump in and say, stop using that language. we aren't canceling the holidays. They are showing up in different ways. We're approaching those, we're experiencing, we're celebrating in different ways. That's very important for our mindset.

But let me talk with you about tips that we have. I would encourage anyone to head to That's important because you can be directly connected to resources. You can take an assessment on where you're at with isolation, put in your ZIP code and be connected to interventions and supports right in your own neighborhood-- many, many things that we would advise.

I have said throughout this, and I do this, make it a point that each day you will take time to check in on your older loved ones and to check in on your older neighbors. That is as easy as a phone call. If they can use video chat even better because you can look at each other and see how you're doing. But just, that is volunteer service that is good for the older adults in your lives. But I can guarantee it will make you feel better. And scientifically, it has been found that volunteering is good for our own health. So see it as your own preventive connection.

We also launched a chatbot tool. Just with your phone you can text for help. It's automated and it will coach an older adult so that they can again reach out to their neighbors, and loved ones in their families. We're deploying smart speakers and voice-first technology as a way to connect as well. Other tips that you can use, get creative during the holiday season and decide as a family, or with your neighbors, that you'll share traditional recipes that you may celebrate with at your table, that everyone will agree to cook one or share it, and then set up your FaceTime, a video chat, or a Zoom platform, and dine together in a virtual environment.

JOHN WHYTE: And a lot of these technologies require practice. I think at times, sometimes we say, oh, all of a sudden we're going to do FaceTime or Zoom, and it's the first time. And we have to remember, it's challenging for all of us when we start it. And you don't always have that understanding of seniors. And they may need more regularity. So I've been encouraging people, don't wait for big days to say, this is when we're going to do it. But as you pointed out, this regularity, this cadence to it, that you're doing it every day.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: That's right. And again, it will make you feel better. But you're so right about it. I don't know about you, I know about me. Even though I'm virtually in meetings all day long, several times a day someone will be shouting to me, you're on mute. So you're absolutely right that--

JOHN WHYTE: That happened to me earlier today.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: Did it? So technology, in fact, can be tricky. But I want to address that a little bit. There is also this, somewhat of a myth about older adults and their technology use. Many, many more older adults are online than we think about. And even if they aren't, or don't have access, they're totally agile and flexible and wanting to use technology tools. So as long as we do what you suggested, which is be patient and take the time to teach, literally walk an older adult through using FaceTime, and use it on a regular basis, you are giving them a digital-literacy tool that will be very, very important across their life course.

JOHN WHYTE: On your site you also address the issue of food insecurity. And there is a correlation with loneliness as well--


JOHN WHYTE: --in terms of challenges. How do we address issues of food insecurity in the elderly?

LISA MARSH RYERSON: Yeah, I'm glad that you brought that up because it relates back to the way that we opened our conversation with one another. That social isolation is about your social network of people and your ability to connect with critical community resources. And certainly, having access to affordable, reliable food is something we should always be checking on with all of our neighbors but in particular with vulnerable older adults, just as we would ask them if they have the transportation that they need. If they have a doctor's appointment, can you get there?

For us, food security is an important issue. And I am here to tell you that it is rapidly on the rise in our nation. And it is likely no surprise to you, Dr. Whyte, that it is on the rise universally, for many reasons. Because the two of us know that we have not one pandemic, we have convergence of pandemics. We have the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis or downturn, and the ongoing pandemic in our nation of systemic racism and discrimination.

So we need to think about our solutions, whether it's solutions for connection or food security, understanding this broader context. For us, what we have been doing is, we have multiple prongs to our approach to food security. One is that we used our innovation muscle during the pandemic to pull our team together and come up with a rapid-response solution to the growing numbers of older adults who were calling us and letting us know that they had acute food assistance needs.

And we developed an emergency food-box program. And we were able to deploy over 3.4 million meals to older adults who live in affordable housing, are participants in our programs, or work with our state offices. Definitely increasing access to needed safety-net programs, such as SNAP or the Elderly Simplified Application Process. All of that is very, very important.

JOHN WHYTE: That information to participate is on your website, correct? People can learn more information From going to the Foundation site.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: They absolutely can. But as it relates to food security, it's interesting we bring it up in this conversation, too, during this holiday season one of the things I'm going to challenge myself to do is to touch base with older neighbors in my community and, as I'm cooking recipes and food that I want to share at my table, drop off a dish. You can do that safely. You can ring the doorbell, knock on a door. Be sure you're masked up. Be sure that you're physically distanced. But be sharing. I'm privileged and I have bounty in my life. To be able to share that with others is so important for us.

JOHN WHYTE: So I want to be real practical now because a lot of listeners, this is on their mind, the elephant in the room.


JOHN WHYTE: When can they safely visit a loved one? So you just gave a very good example, where you can drop off a dish. You can all be wearing a mask. A two-minute interaction is not going to cause COVID-19. So some of the challenge has been, it's been an all or none, people that aren't willing to listen to any restrictions and they're doing life as they always have, and others that say under no circumstance are they going to visit an elderly parent, even if that parent is in the same town with no underlying health condition.

So can you help our viewers or listeners think through when it might be OK and safe, recognizing it's all an evaluation of risk in visiting a loved one? Because we've heard people say on the program, if I can't see my grandchildren, I don't know what their purpose is. And many people have talked about people that were previously living independently that are now having a lot of challenges because of this loneliness and this isolation.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: That's right. And I appreciate the way you said it, let's get real practical. I want to go back, Dr. Whyte, to something I said earlier, which is that seeing it on that sort of-- not on a continuum but it's, either I'm in person or I'm not, suggests that just because we cannot safely be present with one another we cannot remain connected. So I know I'm repeating myself, but this is so critically important.

Follow the guidelines, CDC-- It's always good to head to CDC's website. They just put forward great guidance on how those who live within an immediate household and families can safely continue to remain connected to one another. And I was able to listen to an AARP tele-town hall earlier, with Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Anthony Fauci. And it was so uplifting for me in a difficult time to hear the wrap-up. Help is on the way. We do have good news about vaccines and some other areas.

But to get practical with you, my suggestion, what my family is doing is we're following those guidelines. We don't want to unwittingly transmit virus or illness to anyone else or be on the receiving end of that. So we will celebrate with our immediate family, and celebrate with others via video calls, touching base with our neighbors and our community via the knock on the door and how are you.

And the win to me is-- and you will jump in here as a physician-- public health officials will continue to guide us on best practices. And this is one of those times when we're reminded that we all playing accountable role in public health. As it relates to older adults who are living on their own, or I think you said are at assisted living or other areas, I would want to share with you, Dr. Whyte, that AARP Public Policy Institute just released a new study.

And, likely no surprise, but well over 50% of caregivers report that they're sadder right now, in this season and time, now that we're-- what is it-- eight months or so into this pandemic and approaching holidays and the winter season. And that's tough because they're worried about the isolation that you're talking about for their older loved one. And I told you, or reminded us, that caregivers themselves have always been at greater risk.

So anything and everything we can do to have facilities absolutely facilitate video conversations. If a caregiver wants to write to a loved one or a family member does, ask them to print off the photograph or the letter in your own handwriting so that your voice is heard. These are tough tradeoffs. This is about well-being and health risk management. That's what you're saying and I do agree with you.

JOHN WHYTE: Now is the time we have to be creative and think of new ways. It's not going to be the same as it was before. But we can still do something.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: But different can be OK. Different can be OK. And I do think it will force us, maybe, in some way-- The ways in which we get together in the past with the individuals with whom we're connected are healthful and important for us. But I try regularly to pause and say, have I built a social network that is in some way not as inclusive as it needs to be for those who need me most? So creative can help us be more inclusive. And that will ultimately, I think, be a really great outcome for older adults and for anyone across the age spectrum who is experiencing isolation and loneliness.

I mean, we recently surveyed adults 18 and over, and a full two thirds report that they are isolated and having an increase with anxiety and depression. So these are issues across the life course.

JOHN WHYTE: Well, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, I want to thank you for providing your insights, giving us some good ideas, having great content on your website that we'll put here on the screen so people can visit. So please continue to do what you're doing for our seniors, as well as the work of AARP.

LISA MARSH RYERSON: Well and you, too. You are such a source of important and trusted information. That's really helping us in this time when people are disconnected. And I can tell that you wake up every day and also try to be the best possible neighbor you can be. And if we all did that, things would be better in communities across this nation.

JOHN WHYTE: That's a good point to end on. And with that, I want to thank everyone for watching. And we'll see you next time.