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06:06 AM

Vaccinated Seniors: Get Out and Have Fun!

Pandemic-induced Isolation Negatively Affects Physical and Mental Health, and Experts Advise That Socializing is the Best Medicine for Adults Who Have had Their COVID-19 Shots

Health experts have a new message for seniors, who they once cautioned to stay home and protect themselves against COVID-19: "As long as you are vaccinated, you can go out!" said Sonja Rosen, MD, chief of Geriatric Medicine at Cedars-Sinai.

Before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available at the start of the year, limiting exposure to others was the best way to reduce the chance of contracting the illness. Seniors, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19 life-threatening complications, were among the first to begin receiving their shots, and now Rosen says staying at home is the bigger threat to their wellbeing.

"When people are socially isolated, they are less likely to exercise, and less likely to seek medical care when they need it, and this directly impacts their physical and mental health," said Rosen. "Informal experiences like socializing with cashiers at the grocery store or dropping into a senior center for lunch are a great antidote to pandemic-induced depression and loneliness."

Rosen's patient Sandra Banner, 85, has been following health and safety guidelines, but wasn't about to let herself or her friends become isolated.

"What I have observed among my peers is that, especially when you're older, isolation is the worst illness," said Banner, who lives in Palm Desert. "It's worse than falling. And I needed to make sure that my neighbors had opportunities to come out and see each other."

Before the pandemic, the retired school administrator and active volunteer spent free time going to movies and happy hour with friends, practicing tai chi and shuttling between her desert home and Los Angeles, where she has two grown children, five grandchildren and season tickets to the Dodgers.

"Then, all of a sudden, isolation," said Banner, who lovingly called her children her "jailers."

To connect with others, Banner began teaching daily outdoor tai chi classes for her neighbors, with masks and physical distancing, and organizing weekly outdoor happy hours. She participated in virtual clothing drives and other volunteer activities, connected with her kids on FaceTime and attended synagogue – one son-in-law is a rabbi – on Zoom.

But while virtual activities can reduce loneliness and social isolation, they don't provide all the benefits of in-person interaction.

"Most people form connections from in-person interactions," said Rosen. "It's also physically important to get moving."

Cedars-Sinai geriatrician Allison Moser Mays, MD, suggests meeting up with others outdoors – whether for a walk or a visit to a local garden – as a solid first step.

"There can be some sense of social awkwardness at first," she said. "No one has had lots of in-person interaction over the past year. It's everyone's first day of school again, so give yourself permission for it to feel awkward or new."

After Banner was vaccinated, she expanded her anti-isolation campaign with biweekly at-home dinners with her closest friend, then began gathering outdoors at restaurants with an expanding circle of people. 

"I got to see a lot of people I hadn't seen in a year or a year and a half," she said. 

Start Small

One friend was especially hesitant, telling Banner she didn't know how to start socializing and was afraid to even try. So, Banner invited her over for a one-on-one get-together and gradually helped her transition to larger gatherings.

"I think you encourage people gradually," Banner said. "It doesn't work if you have discomfort. I actually took this friend to the movies recently, and she felt good about it."

Rosen agrees with Banner's approach.

"I was talking to one patient the other day about going to the grocery store, another about going out to eat, and another about going to Maui," she said. "Everyone has a different barometer for what feels right and safe for them."

For extra reassurance, Mays recommends finding out about the safety protocols and expectations in place before embarking on a new in-person activity.

"How many people are expected? What are the expectations around masking? Knowing those details ahead of time can help ease anxiety," Mays said.

Banner has recently been on vacation with her family, and took a trip to Philadelphia for her granddaughter's graduation. And she is back in her seat at Dodgers' games. Meanwhile, she's still getting up early each morning to practice tai chi with her neighbors.

"But we still continue to do it every day," she said. "It has now become a part of our lives."

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: How to Live a Longer, More Fulfilling Life