In retirement planning, there inevitably needs to be a financial analysis to determine how much one can spend and for how long, based on a set of predetermined assumptions. That is vital in determining if a course of action is financially sustainable. But the other resources we have in retirement include time and our health. How we spend our time is something we tend to have more control over, although we all attempt to make good health decisions that will ultimately add quality years to our retirement. Social engagement, or the degree to one’s participation in community or society, is easy to do in our younger years. When growing up, we have classmates, teammates and perhaps communities related to faith. As we get older, those social circles include co-workers and neighbors. Once well into retirement, many of those social circles naturally dissipate as we leave careers and perhaps the communities where we have raised our families. At some point, we must proactively seek to maintain social networks and to create new ones. Unfortunately, during the COVID-19 crisis, for our personal safety we are being forced into “social distancing,” which can be particularly difficult for seniors who are actively trying to maintain those vital networks.
The Dangers of Social Isolation During Social Distancing
I’ve had the privilege of serving on an advisory council over the past several months to the MIT AgeLab in Cambridge, MA. During a group meeting with the founder and director of the lab, Dr. Joseph Coughlin, shared data from European studies that indicated that social isolation was an epidemic in and of itself. Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, Douglas Nemecek, stated “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”*
Social isolation not only leads to mental health problems, but physical ones as well. Those who suffer from loneliness often have weaker immune systems and are more prone to heart disease. These preconditions make many isolated seniors more at risk of complications from COVID-19.
Across the world, however, public health officials are advocating for “social distancing” while testing and treatment options are developed. Seniors, a vulnerable population for the new coronavirus, are being sheltered within their homes and care communities to avoid contact. This is vitally important to protect our physical health, but how do we balance our need for social engagement when we are required to social distance?
The Answer Lies in Technology
We still have the ability to socially engage by utilizing technology that was not heavily adopted even a decade ago. Video technologies including Zoom, WebEx, Facetime and Skype are allowing us to connect with family and friends while maintaining social distance. Businesses are also working remotely by embracing and increasing the usage of DocuSign to limit exposure to mail. Legal documents are more commonly being executed with “digital notarization” in jurisdictions that are allowing for it. Communities are also supporting small businesses by ordering from local restaurants via DoorDash, Uber Eats and other meal delivery services. In social and business communities, the level of social engagement is positively correlated to our adoption of these technologies.
In summary, it is important to follow social distance guidelines as long as public health officials deem it necessary. This is not only to protect ourselves, but also seniors who appear to be more vulnerable than others. Those very seniors, however, have the ability to stay connected with friends, family, advisors, activities and businesses by utilizing technology that is readily available today. As advisors, adult children and caregivers, we are in a perfect position to help them adopt these technologies to maximize their mental and physical well-being through social engagement.
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