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Loneliness

COVID-19 Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults

The pandemic's effects on social isolation, and what we can do to overcome them.

Key points

  • Social connections are an important part of being human.
  • Several predisposing factors make older adults more vulnerable to the effects of social isolation and loneliness.
  • The pandemic has forced people to develop innovative solutions, and some of these might continue to positively impact older adults post-pandemic.
  • Having a sense of purpose and engaging in meaningful activities can protect older adults from the negative effects of social isolation.

“Social connection is such a basic feature of human experience that when we are deprived of it, we suffer,” said theoretical physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow. We all know the value of social connection – seeing our spouse laugh at a joke we tell, being hugged by our children, exchanging stories with our parents – all these experiences bring so much joy, and indeed are an essential part of being human.

What happens when, all of a sudden, your social connections are diminished drastically due to a deadly virus that you are particularly vulnerable to? This has been the precise situation that many older adults in the US and around the world have faced over the past year and a half.

Social Isolation Versus Loneliness

Even pre-pandemic, experts estimated that around a quarter of American adults aged 65 and older were considered socially isolated, and 43 percent of adults over the age of 60 reported feeling lonely. This brings us to an important distinction – that between social isolation and loneliness. We’ve all experienced feeling lonely in a crowd, so we know that how lonely one feels has nothing to do with the number of people they interact with. While social isolation refers to an objective lack of social contact with others, loneliness is more subjective, and describes a person’s perception of isolation, or how lonely one feels. Not everyone feels lonely when isolated, however. Some of us even seek out isolation as a means to be happy – Albert Einstein famously said 'I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.'

Older Adults are at Greater Risk for Social Isolation

Advancing age is not a necessary precondition for loneliness, nor is it a direct cause. There are certain predisposing factors, however, that make older adults at increased risk for social isolation and loneliness – for one, older adults are more likely to live alone, are more likely to have lost family or friends, and sometimes live with chronic illnesses and sensory impairments that might make it hard for them to establish and maintain social relationships.

Unsurprisingly, then, the effects of social isolation due to the pandemic might affect older adults who live in long-term care facilities. Studies have suggested that older people living in long-term care homes are at least twice as likely as the community population to experience severe loneliness. In addition to a lack of meaningful relationships, feelings of a loss in self-determination can contribute to enhanced feelings of loneliness. Researchers have also examined which interventions work best to alleviate loneliness in these populations – laughter therapy and reminiscence therapy are among the successful ones. Of course, some of these were not possible during the beginning stages of the pandemic, and caregivers have had to innovate.

The Impact of the Pandemic on Social Connections

Mark Meridy, Executive Director Of DOROT, an organization that aims to address the challenges of social isolation in older adults through diverse programs and services, says the pandemic and its effects on social isolation prompted DOROT as an organization to create a telephone friends program called ‘caring calls’ which matched volunteers with older adults to connect over the telephone.

The times we live in have provided us with solutions that would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier. Technology has made it possible for people to have social connections at their fingertips. Mr. Meridy also told me that DOROT as an organization has been able to significantly expand its reach thanks to virtual programs, and that he envisions that they will continue their virtual programming coupled with their in-person programming even post-pandemic, given that the older adults who participated in their Zoom programming felt positively impacted.

Making Changes that Make a Difference

A report on loneliness in older adults published by the National Academies Press suggests several interventions that healthcare systems can consider to combat social isolation and loneliness in older adults, including cognitive behavioral therapy programs and mindfulness-based interventions. But at the end of the day, it is not fair to expect the healthcare system to come up with long-lasting solutions by itself. We, as a society, need to do more to ensure that older adults who are close to us are not lonely.

Older adults who are battling loneliness or isolation, for their part, can do several things to protect themselves from the negative effects of these. Research suggests that engaging in meaningful, productive activities with other people results in an increased sense of purpose and can also positively impact longevity. There are a number of technology-based solutions to combat loneliness during COVID-19 times, so if you are an older adult who is not comfortable using a smartphone or other devices, it might be a good idea to sign up for online classes (several libraries and community centers offer these) to learn how to use these technologies.

For the rest of us, it can sometimes be as simple as picking up the phone and talking to our grandparents.

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