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Step 1: Social Distancing; Step 2: Cognitive Decline?

May 29, 2020
By: 
Ruanne Vent-Schmidt, PhD
Research Consultant
Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
Mahadeo Sukhai, PhD
Head of Research and Chief Accessibility Officer
Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)

“Why don’t you visit?” This is a phrase we hear when we think of our grandparents, whose health and well-being require love and kindness from those around them - family, friends, and neighbours. In the era of social distancing and isolation, we are all at risk for anxiety, depression, long-term mental health conditions, and cognitive decline. Seniors, particularly those living in isolation, are especially at risk. A delicate pool of seniors, often missed in conversation, are those living with sensory disabilities. 1.5 million Canadians are blind or visually impaired (Canadian Survey on Disability, 2017). Approximately one-third of these individuals are over the age of 65. Furthermore, 30.9% of persons with sight loss in Canada also identify with concurrent hearing loss (Canadian Survey on Disability, 2017). Dual sensory loss of vision and hearing is strongly associated with depression in older adults and social distancing robs them of physical touch.

A study by Palmer and colleagues suggested that less social support, smaller social networks, and more negative social interactions have been linked to depression, poorer immune functioning, increased incidence of disease, and higher mortality in older adults. How does COVID-19 affect seniors with sensory loss? If the virus doesn’t get to them, the lack of social support will. In this time of social distancing, the answer to “Why don’t you visit?” may be simple. “We need to fight COVID-19.” It shouldn’t stop there. What we need to ask ourselves is, “What can we do to be kind to the grandparents of our society?”

Zoom or Skype is not a solution. Seniors who experienced sensory loss at a young age suffer from the world’s reluctance to include the disabled in education and career development. Without opportunity for training and employment starting at a young age, these seniors are unable to afford monthly internet bills, let alone a computer. Calling a relative could mean calculating the cost of long-distance bills. For seniors who experienced sensory loss later in life, it takes great effort to learn the latest assistive technology to help them communicate with the world, often at a steep cost. The loss of drivers’ licenses means loss of independence.

Social distancing creates more barriers for those that depend on a sighted guide for essential trips, such as shopping for groceries or picking up prescription drugs. Virtual healthcare delivery also may negatively impact this population, as many platforms and systems, forced to rapidly adjust to pandemic-driven circumstances, have not put accessibility front and centre. Worse, families may be faced with difficult choices: send a sick relative with sensory loss to the hospital unaccompanied, or keep them at home without proper care. Uncertainty brings out the worst or the best of us. We urge all policy makers, researchers, individuals and businesses to unite, draw on compassion and respond to this challenge with creative solutions.

Research and evidence-based policy making in the healthcare, innovation and social services sectors need to respond to these emergent circumstances by placing a renewed emphasis on accessibility, particularly for groups on the margins, like seniors with sight and/or hearing loss. We further propose priority and subsidized delivery for seniors with disabilities ordering groceries online, and concessions for internet services and smart home devices, where voice user interface is more accessible than screens. Offering verbal guidance at a distance to blind or visually impaired seniors entering the bus or stores could come a long way. Boost accessibility of telemedicine to seniors with disabilities. Create an accessible advocacy platform for seniors to raise their voice. Increase training of staff at long-term care homes to interact with blind and visually impaired residents. Volunteer to be a Virtual Vision Mate to ease their anxiety. Businesses, caregivers, and policy-makers must come together to ensure all aspects of life remain open to seniors with sensory impairments, and that no one is left behind because of where they live or their socioeconomic status.

In times of uncertainty, we have the power to choose how we react. Regardless of who we are and where we come from, kindness-giving is free and can be as valuable as supporting the health and well-being of our seniors with sensory loss. It’s also a time to implement changes to better support a population that has just as much human rights as the rest of us.