Coping With COVID-19: It Takes More Than Medicine

The holidays, for all their glitter and manufactured cheer, are also notorious for stoking feelings of loneliness and depression.

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This year – the first holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic – will be a bigger test than usual. With coronavirus cases on the rise again across the country, caution will dictate more social distancing and isolation, particularly among older Americans.

Some of the nation’s most respected health authorities, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and his boss at the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins, have publicly said they’re foregoing large family gatherings at Thanksgiving this year.

“It can’t be understated how important social isolation can be on the health of older adults,” says Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, a geriatrician and palliative care specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. “Just like any drug, the social precautions for the COVID-19 pandemic have side effects,” he explains, “how older adults are able to interact with their community, see their grandchildren, continue staying physically active and continue even going to see their doctor with normal checkups.”

Earlier this year, Kotwal decided to try to pin down some of those effects by checking in every two weeks with a cross-section of 151 older adults living in the San Francisco Bay Area. The survey group, which averaged 75 years of age, revealed a wide range of loneliness and social isolation. More than half attributed “worsened feelings of loneliness” directly to the pandemic. 

“Aside from people who are so generously helping me, I don’t see anybody.”

The team measured loneliness using a scale developed at UCLA that gauges study subjects’ responses to a series of statements, such as “I lack companionship,” “I feel left out” and “I feel isolated from others.” Overall, Kotwal’s research team found indications of social isolation in 40% of its interviews.

The Digital Divide

During the interviews, a major factor in social isolation revealed itself: a lack of comfort or know-how with internet and technology-based means of connection, such as video calls and even email. Nearly half of respondents reported no “video-based socializing” and one in four said they lacked even the most basic internet-based connections, such as email.

Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, a geriatrician and palliative care specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, next aveune, coping
Dr. Ashwin Kotwal

This means that many older Americans were passed by when the world’s interactions moved largely online during early pandemic-related “lockdowns.”

Sue Baldwin counts herself among this group. The 89-year-old widow lives alone in a remote hamlet in upstate New York. She has no computer and doesn’t want one, and no cellphone for face-to-face interactions with her children and grandchildren, spread across the country from New Jersey to New Mexico.

“It’s made me even more introspective, I suppose, and dependent on the television, which I shouldn’t be,” Baldwin laments. Her only direct link to the world outside her rambling colonial home is a conventional telephone landline.

Neighbors have been taking turns doing Baldwin’s weekly grocery shopping, something she dearly misses doing herself. “Aside from people who are so generously helping me,” she says, “I don’t see anybody.”

Our Commitment

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When death seems everywhere: some coping suggestions

The coronavirus is the first widespread health crisis in the age of information and social media. So far, more than 225,000 people have died in the United States from the coronavirus or complications from it, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

According to one anthropologist, Americans already lack a healthy relationship with death, associating it with medical failure rather than a natural part of life. Here are some examples from a variety of different perspectives of how to take care of yourself and not get too stressed out during a stressful and sometimes tragic time.



Dr. Joan Anzia is a psychiatrist and professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. She recommends taking care of yourself physically — getting at least seven or eight hours of a sleep a night, going to bed and getting up around the same time every day.

“Stay hydrated, eat well, avoid having more than one or two alcoholic drinks a day,” she says. She also recommends getting outside and doing things you enjoy: “It can be an opportunity … to think about what you really value in your own life and what you want to do with the rest of your life.”



Anita Hanning, an associate anthropology professor at Brandeis University, says generally we push “awareness of our mortality to the basement of our consciousness.”

She has this recommendation:

“Being aware of our mortality can make us live more intentionally. That means not postponing important conversations and decisions, and not wasting time on things that don’t nurture us. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, so what would happen if we truly lived our lives with that knowledge? We would become much more present to the here and now, instead of constantly making plans for a future that lies beyond our control. We would invest more in our relationships than in our careers, and each day would seem like a gift rather than something we need to muscle through on our way to a better, happier place. “



Dr. Elyssa Barbash, a psychologist in Tampa, Florida, says not to focus on “the potential of death.”

“It isn’t realistic to say that death is more around us now than it was before,” she says. She says the death potential has stayed relatively steady, in terms of the many ways a person could get sick or have an accident. “We can’t live our lives in a constant state of fear or engage in extreme behavioral avoidance simply out of self-preservation.”

She suggests focusing on “joyful activities and things that give life meaning.” That may mean taking a step back from the news and being constantly connected to virus updates. “Staying informed is one thing, but constant exposure is unhelpful and unhealthy for the mind,” she says.



Margaret “Elaine” Stalheim, 92, was in her early 20s when she got polio. It was only a year before they found a vaccine.

She remembers how much she

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