Social Isolation In Older Adults: The Hidden Pandemic
No one could have predicted the COVID-19 pandemic. This unprecedented and historic crisis has brought many issues to light and drawn attention to countless others, including social isolation in older adults.
To be sure, the pandemic will have a prolonged and deep-rooted effect on many peoples’ overall health and wellbeing. But for seniors, the impact of senior social isolation and loneliness are especially critical.
These problems are associated with serious health outcomes such as diminished physical and mental health. However, with seniors among the most at-risk of transmission, self-isolation is a necessity.
Understanding these issues in the context of the pandemic is an important step toward helping elders and their families manage them.
Social Isolation In Older Adults During COVID-19
Social isolation and loneliness are usually grouped together, but they aren’t the same.
A June study published in Global Health Research And Policy defines social isolation as “the objective state of having few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others.” On the other hand, “loneliness is a subjective feeling of being isolated.”
Unfortunately, many people minimize these issues and fail to see the public health threat they pose to a large part of the country’s elderly population.
Even before the pandemic, about 25% of older Americans living in community settings were socially isolated, while 43% suffered from loneliness.
As the pandemic enters its ninth month and some areas prepare for another wave of lockdowns, these figures will only increase.
Seniors living in care facilities or nursing homes had many opportunities to socialize with others and engage in community events before COVID-19. However, staff can no longer offer activities or family visits because of the virus, severely limiting residents’ social interactions.
Elders aging in place with support from family or professional caregivers also face these challenges. Throughout the pandemic, families have had to choose between their loved one’s physical and mental states. Consequently, many seniors may only interact with their caregiver or meal delivery driver.
But seniors under care aren’t the only ones at risk of social isolation and loneliness. The pandemic also exasperates many common problems for family caregivers — many of who are also older adults — such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
The Effects Of Social Isolation In Older Adults
A growing body of research finds that loneliness and social isolation in older adults can severely affect health and quality of life. These issues correlate to significant risk factors associated with decreased physical and mental health, such as:
- Elevated blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weak immune system functioning
- Diminished cognitive functioning
- Higher risk of Alzheimer’s
Moreover, socially isolated seniors are more likely to:
- Develop dementia (50%)
- Contract coronary heart disease (29%)
- Have a stroke (32%)
When we recognize the effects of social isolation and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic, we can begin making efforts to support seniors during this difficult time.
How To Avoid Social Isolation In Older Adults
Preventing social isolation in older adults while minimizing the chance of transmission calls for a holistic approach that requires:
- Educating the public about isolation and loneliness
- Utilizing resources from families
- Engaging local organizations and resources
- Leveraging technology to connect seniors with others
- Encouraging health care practitioners to look for the signs of isolation and loneliness during checkups and appointments
AARP offers an online assessment that can help older adults determine their risk. The results can help seniors and their families address the issue and mitigate the effects of loneliness and isolation.
Support Public Education
Social distancing has become a part of the “new normal,” yet social interaction is more important than ever. Researchers have found that social support can alleviate feelings of isolation and enhance elders’ mental state.
Finding a way to engage with seniors safely can be challenging. For this reason, families and communities need to organize resources to ease loneliness and social isolation in older adults.
Stay Connected With Technology
Although everyone is spending more time at home, there are many opportunities to stay connected with the outside world.
Phone calls, letters, and social media can help loved ones stay in touch, even when apart. Additionally, organizations such as VolunteerMatch.org provide seniors with many online volunteering opportunities from the safety of home.
While some older adults may feel uncomfortable using technology, now might be the best time for them to familiarize themselves with it.
Promote Awareness Among Health Care Professionals
The average older adult utilizes the health care system more frequently than their younger counterparts, giving healthcare professionals a chance to monitor for signs of isolation and loneliness.
Physicians and other providers working with at-risk patients can apply their findings to create interventions that can be implemented in both clinical and public health settings.
Additionally, medical schools and other training programs should place more focus on isolation and loneliness. By doing so, students will be better prepared to identify these issues in future patients.
Moreover, technological advances in telehealth can make it easier for seniors and their families to access healthcare, particularly if they live in rural areas, lack transportation, or are homebound.
Currently, health care facilities are overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Few practitioners have the time or resources to specifically look for the signs of loneliness and social isolation in older adults. Hopefully, when the pandemic ends, more focus will be placed on identifying these issues.
Other Ideas For Older Adults At Home
Here are a few other ways seniors can avoid the effects of social isolation and loneliness during the pandemic.
Plan Your Day
More time at home can make every day feel the same as the last. When this happens, planning your day is more important than ever.
Seniors should try to follow a daily routine and maintain their personal care while participating in activities that offer a sense of fulfillment, such as:
- Signing up for free or low-cost online classes
- Scheduling phone calls with loved ones
- Working on home repairs
Stay Physically Active
Lockdowns don’t mean you have to stay inside every day. It’s important that older adults participate in outdoor activities that allow a safe distance from others, such as walking.
For those who cannot go outside safely, there are many indoor exercises for seniors that can help improve your balance and strength.
If you do go outside, make sure you wear your mask, use tissues and hand sanitizer, and distance yourself from others as much as you can.
Social isolation in older adults during the COVID-19 pandemic is a serious issue that can cause severe health outcomes.
Although social distancing and lockdowns significantly limit seniors’ social interactions, technology can ease the effects of loneliness and help them stay connected with others.
During this difficult time, Meetcaregivers is here for you. We provide seniors and their families with access to qualified caregivers who offer the support they deserve.
No senior should go hungry, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more about our free food delivery program and sign up today.
For more information about meal delivery or hiring an in-home care worker, contact us at 1-888-541-1136.
Then, visit the blog for more resources for caregivers and senior living.
- Ory, Marcia G., and Matthew Lee Smith. “Social Isolation: The COVID-19 Pandemic’s Hidden Health Risk for Older Adults, and How to Manage It.” The Conversation, 6 July 2020, theconversation.com/social-isolation-the-covid-19-pandemics-hidden-health-risk-for-older-adults-and-how-to-manage-it-141277.
- Wu, B. Social isolation and loneliness among older adults in the context of COVID-19: a global challenge. glob health res policy 5, 27 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41256-020-00154-3