Surviving Social Distancing


Matt Kaplan teaching intergenerational karate class

Social distancing helps prevent the spread of the coronavirus, but can produce or worsen feelings of isolation and loneliness. When family activities such as the mixed-generation karate class taught by extension educator Matt Kaplan (facing camera), aren’t possible, people need to get creative to remain connected.

Image: Patrick Mansell

Matt Kaplan, professor of agricultural and extension education at Penn State, develops and evaluates programs to enhance active engagement among people of different generations. He founded the Intergenerational Leadership Institute, a certificate training program that helps older adults find ways to bring their expertise and enthusiasm to younger members of the community. After his recent Penn State Extension webinar for people who work with seniors on Strategies for Engaging Older Adults in This Era of ‘Social Distancing,’ he talked about some of the challenges we all face when we can’t get together in person.

Besides being uncomfortable, what are some of the bad effects of not being able to get together with family and friends in person?

Holt Lunstad at BYU and her colleagues have done a lot of research on the devastating effects of social isolation and loneliness, both actual loneliness, which is objectively measured, and perceived loneliness, which is a psychological state. There are a lot of negative health outcomes, in terms of brain health and heart health, but the thing that’s most striking is the risk for early mortality. Those studies found that loneliness has as much negative impact on your health and chance to live longer as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

And it’s not just older adults who are lonely. It happens with college students, too, maybe even more. I’m reading a lot from psychology researchers about how the kind of extreme social isolation that we see in the COVID-19 pandemic can intensify anxiety and stress, particularly in people with mood disorders and eating disorders. Disrupted access to those who offer social support or even just a friendly ear for bouncing feelings off can exacerbate these conditions.

You’ve done a lot of work on using digital technology to connect generations, like using an iPad to enjoy a family dinner via FaceTime. Are these approaches helping as we physically distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19?

That’s where I was going in the webinar discussion, but I got a lot of pushback. My intent was to give examples of high tech as well as low tech strategies for engaging socially isolated older adults, but participants noted many barriers on the high-tech side. There were stories of loved ones who had issues with computer hardware, software, Internet access, and just a basic discomfort with relying on a computer for social interaction.

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