America’s seniors are lonely. Study after study has shown us that social isolation among the elderly is reaching epidemic proportions. The CDC has identified loneliness and social isolation in older adults as “serious health risks,” and the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the problem to light in new ways.
Many seniors lack social connections and are separated from family or friends (social isolation). Others may have social interactions but still experience loneliness if those connections aren’t meaningful or satisfying. A recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) identified one-fourth of seniors 65 and older as socially isolated. Another study showed that 40 percent of seniors experience loneliness. But there are steps we can take–even during COVID– to create and maintain connections.
COVID and the Loneliness Epidemic
While loneliness in seniors is nothing new, COVID has intensified the problem. The pandemic means increased isolation for seniors living at home, changing how they interact with family and friends. The COVID crisis has also increased isolation in long-term care facilities, where socialization was a priority pre-pandemic. Residents are, by necessity, isolated from visitors and fellow residents. The absence of physical touch from family, caregivers and long-term care staff also leaves a hole.
Why Are Seniors Lonely and Isolated?
The CDC has identified numerous factors that contribute to loneliness in seniors. They include:
- Living alone.
- The loss of family or friends. As seniors age, it can be challenging to move forward as friends and family members pass away. The loss of a spouse or partner can dramatically increase the sense of loneliness.
- Chronic illness can limit seniors’ ability to get out and engage in activities. Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease can also create isolation, both for the patient and caregiving spouses.
- Lack of mobility is another obstacle to creating and maintaining connections, limiting activities open to older adults. When seniors lose access to driving, it can further increase their sense of isolation.
- Hearing loss is a sometimes-overlooked cause of social isolation. It can make it frustrating for seniors to be in social settings and make connections more challenging.
How Does Loneliness Affect Health In Seniors?
Loneliness has a dramatic effect on seniors’ mental and physical health. It shortens lifespan and contributes to chronic illness. According to the CDC, some of the documented effects include:
- Increased risk of premature death.
- Increased risk of dementia (up to 50 percent higher).
- Greater risk of heart disease and stroke.
- Risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
How Can We Combat Loneliness When Mom or Dad Lives Alone?
While COVID has made creating connections for seniors living alone, there are still ways we can decrease social isolation.
- Reach out to your local Area Agency on Aging. They are an excellent resource for nutrition and meal programs like Meals on Wheels, adult daycare centers, classes, and programming.
- Local senior centers are a terrific way to make friends and create connections. Many are still open during COVID with safety protocols and offer transportation to members who can’t drive.
- Help mom or dad cultivate new hobbies or find interest groups for existing hobbies, including online groups.
- Look into safe volunteering opportunities. Helping others gives seniors a sense of purpose and helps launch friendships and create connections.
- Set up socially distanced visits and make sure all family members (including grandchildren) call regularly.
- Help mom or dad get set up with technology like smartphones and tablets so they can virtually connect with friends and loved ones face to face.
- Make sure primary care physicians are checking for signs of isolation or depression.
How Do Long-Term Care Facilities Work To Keep Seniors Connected?
Under normal circumstances, one of the primary benefits of choosing a long-term care facility is keeping residents surrounded by fellow residents and staff. Pre-COVID, congregate living allowed for lots of daily interactions, including shared meal times and social activities. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything for residents. Physical isolation is essential during these challenging times. Even with most residents now vaccinated, there are infection prevention protocols in place. Restrictions on visitors have separated seniors from family and friends. Staff can’t engage with residents as they normally would, and facilities limit residents’ interactions to prevent outbreaks. However, long-term care facilities continue to work hard to keep residents engaged and connected. Here are some programs that can help alleviate loneliness and isolation,
- Pet programs that bring animals into nursing homes.
- Spending time outdoors.
- Using technology to connect with outside family and fellow residents.
- Continuing religious services, including prayer groups and Bible study. This includes virtual or socially distanced options during COVID.
- Socially distanced activities, including games and crafts.
For many families, choosing a long-term care facility comes with the reassurance that mom or dad has high-quality human interaction and support every day. Hugging may be on hold for now, but at Evergreen Health & Rehab, fostering connections with fellow residents and staff remains a priority. The last year has required facilities to get creative about combating loneliness. But at Evergreen, meaningful connections are still happening every day.