Coronavirus precautions come with a side effect: loneliness

Mar 17, 2020

On March 5, Curtis Bradford went to the grocery store. He was already feeling paranoid about the spread of the coronavirus, worried about who might have picked up the vegetables or snacks before he arrived. Then, as he waited to select a package of tomatoes, he watched the woman in front of him touch every single one, before choosing the first container she’d picked up.

“Normally, I might not have paid much attention,” said Bradford, 55, who is HIV-positive. But with the coronavirus in the Bay Area and on his mind, he thought, “maybe coming to the grocery store is not a good idea right now.”

The next evening, he made a hard decision: he was going to isolate himself.

Bradford lives alone with his dog in an SRO in the Tenderloin and works as a community organizer for the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation. He usually goes into an office during the week, is active in the community and ushers at Glide Memorial Church on Sundays. But for the past week, he’s been working from home, live-streaming religious services and ordering his groceries on Amazon. He’s left his apartment only to walk the dog or run to the corner store.

On one outing, he bumped into a neighbor who’s a senior citizen. “She was telling me how scared she is, and she just started crying,” he said. “It’s having a really traumatic impact on people in my community. Big time.”

As those most at risk of becoming severely ill from the novel coronavirus — people over age 60 or who have underlying health problems — engage in aggressive social distancing, they face another danger: loneliness.

“I’ve really not allowed myself to dwell on the fact that it could be some time,” Bradford said. “I’m not sure what that means. I don’t feel like this kind of living is sustainable for a real long time.”

In a press conference on Sunday, Gov. Gavin Newsom instructed people over age 65 and with chronic health conditions to isolate themselves at home. But for senior citizens and people like Bradford, taking the necessary precautions to protect their physical well-being can negatively impact their mental health.

Van Hedwall is the director of programs for Felton Institute San Francisco Suicide Prevention. The organization runs multiple crisis lines, available to callers 24/7, 365, and receives about 3,000 calls each month. So far, Hedwall said, the volume of calls hasn’t increased, but those who are dialing in are talking about the coronavirus. He expects to see a rise in calls in the coming weeks, as more people distance themselves from others or self-quarantine to avoid the virus or prevent its spread. He’s working to get the hot-line system into the cloud, so the program’s volunteers and staff can start social distancing as well.

Along with lack of sleep and mental health issues, loneliness is one of the key factors that contributes to suicidal ideation, Hedwall said. “We are preparing for the worst. I would predict probably in the next two weeks as the cases of infection rise, we will have an increase in anxiety in our callers and feelings of hopelessness.”

Little Brothers Friends of the Elderly serves a population that is especially at risk from COVID-19. The San Francisco chapter of the organization provides in-home visits to 414 senior citizens in the Bay Area, many of whom are disabled or have health problems. March 14 was scheduled to be a visit day, but for the first time in the chapter’s 30-year history, in-person interactions have been suspended for the foreseeable future, said executive director Cathy Michalec.

“We had to make a decision to limit everything to phone interactions,” she said. “We knew that unfortunately being alone and isolated was keeping (seniors) a little safer from the population. But we also knew that they were vulnerable. We knew that they can spiral into depression pretty fast.”

Usually Little Brothers’ “elders,” as they call their senior citizen clients, receive in-home visits once or twice a month, many from matched volunteers who build a relationship over months or years. Some of the elders might not have face-to-face contact with anyone other than their healthcare worker and their “little brother,” said Michalec. “Thirty-nine percent of our elders are isolated because they’re bed-bound. They can’t go to that senior center, so they really depend on that matched volunteer or monthly visit.”

“My ‘little brother’ Larry has been coming to visit me every month,” said client Marvis Phillips, 64, who lives in a residential hotel and can’t go out without an escort due to a stroke disorder. “We have a really good time. Right now he can’t do that. Yeah, we can talk on the phone, but it’s not the same as being with another person.”

Usually, Phillips socializes with his neighbors through community meetings and coffee hours, but they’ve all been canceled to prevent the spread of the virus. Phillips said he’s feeling isolated, lonely and scared. “I’m afraid of any virus. I have a multiple number of health issues, and anything that upsets my limited ability to do treatment is concerning.”

Curtis Bradford is also feeling the effects of isolation. He suffers from depression, and while it’s generally well-managed, being alone has been a challenge. “I have been feeling depressed,” he said. “Normally if I was feeling that way I would get up and go out of the house, but now I can’t do that.”

Instead, when he’s not working, Bradford has been watching TV, playing video games, cuddling with his dog and going on Facebook to stay connected with his community and to accept and offer support. He’s been posting statuses regularly and commenting on other people’s — neighbors keeping tabs on each other and how they’re faring.

Being active in the community is key to his well-being, Bradford said, and being able to reach out, even virtually, has helped.

Little Brothers is also reaching out to its vulnerable clients. Michalec wants each elder to get a call twice a week, and she recently messaged the organization’s network for more volunteers to get on the phone. Seventy-five people responded in the first hour, she said. “We have faith in humankind again. People have really stepped up. One couple said we’ll each take two. It is really, really good.”

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