Safe but secluded: Sometimes isolation is the worst symptom for seniors
Diane Howell didn’t worry too much about COVID-19 when the pandemic began. A 77-year-old retired educator who has lived in Grand County since the ’70s, she took the common-sense precautions, but life went on mostly as normal.
As cases spiked for Grand County through the fall, her approach changed.
Right now, Howell doesn’t leave her house in Winter Park Ranch except for errands and exercise. She doesn’t take visitors. Her granddaughter was going to stay with her for winter break, but Howell decided that wouldn’t be safe.
“That was a real bummer,” Howell recalled. “Family didn’t come for Thanksgiving, didn’t come for Christmas. I’ve been very isolated.”
Howell describes herself as a people person. Right now, her only social interactions are over the phone, through Zoom or on YouTube when she watches her church service.
“I never thought I’d live long enough to see a pandemic,” Howell said. “I knew there was one coming, I just didn’t think it was going to hit during my lifetime.”
Howell is part of the age group considered most vulnerable to COVID-19. She and an estimated 3,000 other county residents over 65 have been navigating the deadly threat of the virus and the social isolation that comes with it.
America’s Health Rankings produces an annual report on social isolation for people 65 and older based on an analysis of certain risk factors. Colorado is one of the healthiest states in the country for seniors, but the risk of social isolation still doubled from 2019 to 2020.
Howell misses hugs and smiles. The isolation makes her sleep a lot and she feels “bored out of (her) gourd.”
“I just found the tension of living under this has not been a lot of fun in my last years on this earth,” Howell said.
Deadly and contagious
Seniors are one of the groups most at risk for death due to the coronavirus. According to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, more than 90% of deaths among COVID-19 cases have been in Coloradans over the age of 60 — even though those age groups make up just 20% of the state’s population.
While the vast majority of coronavirus deaths are in those over 60, that same age group makes up only 16.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people ages 65-74 are five times more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 than young adults and 90 times more likely to die if infected.
The likelihood of death goes up with age. Those over 85 are 630 times more likely to die of COVID if they catch it.
The reasons for this have to do with the way older adults’ immune systems change, making it harder to fight off disease and infection. Older adults are also more likely to have underlying health conditions.
Locally, the Grand County Coroner has determined that only one resident has died due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began. No information was provided on the age of that person. A 58-year-old man also died this summer with COVID in his system, but the coroner determined that was not what caused his death.
Long term care facilities pose another big risk. While seeing some of the strictest pandemic protocols, these facilities are associated with 1,450 COVID deaths statewide according to the COVID Tracking Project.
Grand County’s biggest outbreak was at Cliffview Assisted Living, where 21 of the 24 elderly and disabled residents tested positive for COVID-19, along with 10 of the 18 staff members. Thankfully, no one died as a result of that outbreak.
Along with health care providers who have regular contact with COVID-19 patients, the state’s vaccine rollout gave priority to long-term care facilities because of the high virus spread combined with the increased risk of death. Middle Park Health, which operates Cliffview, has been distributing vaccines to its residents and staff.
The state elected to move up the vaccination priority for those over 70. Following the vaccinations of long-term care facilities, healthcare workers and first responders, individuals over 70 are next.
The news that she might be vaccinated sooner rather than later was a shot of hope for Howell, who has already filled out the forms provided by Grand County Public Health to get in line for the vaccine.
“When I get my second (shot), I will just say to myself, ‘Freedom!’” Howell shouted. “I can get in my car, I can go around and travel places, visit people.”
Howell still plans to wear a mask and stay safe, but the ability to get out again is a welcome one.
Caring for others
Howell made it clear that while she takes it seriously, she’s not afraid of the coronavirus.
“If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, great,” she said. “That’s the just the way I’ve gone through this whole thing. If I were younger, I wouldn’t be saying that.”
While isolation has been hard, Howell said her biggest frustration has been seeing some act with a disregard for others during this time or outright denying the seriousness of the situation.
“I hope that people wake up,” Howell said. “I don’t understand why people are so selfish, thinking that they’re not going to get it or they’re not going to give it to somebody.”
Howell said she believes that anger is always rooted in fear and, while that may explain people’s actions, it has been upsetting to see others outright ignore the public health recommendations.
At the same time, she thinks there has been a lot more good that Grand County has created since the pandemic began in March. She highlighted the work of her church in helping to establish the Outbreak of Kindness, which last year expanded resources in the county.
Even from a socially isolated distance, Howell sees people caring for people.
“That is one of the wonderful things I got to see and experience not only in the county but in the world,” Howell said.
The return to “normal” is still a long way off for Grand County as local health officials work through the distribution of the vaccine. For the many seniors like Howell, the best thing is the belief that she’ll soon get to be with people again.
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