Loneliness

Could Climate Change Increase Social Isolation?

There is a vulnerability as people adjust to a new normal.

Posted Jan 28, 2020

When I called a friend to find out what she was doing over a holiday weekend, she said she was staying inside. "It is one degree outside today," she said, "and the streets are so icy, I can barely walk the dog. Good thing our building has a gym and a community room. At least I will see some neighbors. If I were still in the suburbs, I would be very lonely."

My friend, recently widowed, had moved from a house to an urban apartment building that in some respects was like a vertical neighborhood. An indoor social space, and in the summer a rooftop barbecue-party area for the tenants gave them opportunities to know and mingle with each other.  But even more important, she felt that if she became ill or incapacitated, she could ask someone to help her, at least until her children, who lived many states away could visit.

Social isolation is experienced by many due to the loss of a partner, illness, lack of mobility, financial restrictions, old age, or mental illness, and results in an individual having little or no contact with others.   The toll of such isolation on mental and physical health and longevity has been well studied. Indeed, as this review article points out, social isolation is a greater risk factor than loneliness, per se, on health, because the needs of someone living totally alone, in social isolation, may not be recognized until it is too late. Moreover, data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project confirms the impact of social isolation on cardiovascular health, inflammation, and depression.

Harsh weather conditions such as extreme cold, heat, floods, blizzards, high winds, and torrential downpours, to name a few, make it unpleasant, difficult, and sometimes even impossible for most of us to leave our homes. The elderly may be even more vulnerable because of their mobility, and even health, can be compromised by bad weather. This has not gone unnoticed.

Adults in different age groups were surveyed about their mobility and participation in community activities during the winter.  Almost half of adults questioned, 65 years of age and older, said that icy conditions significantly affected whether they left home to go to work or volunteer activities, and also were three times as likely to refrain from driving as younger adults.

Alarmingly, extreme heat may potentiate the rate of suicide, according to a study examining the link between climate and mental health. Examining suicide rates over several decades in Mexico and the United States, Burke and his colleagues found that the rates of suicide rose 0.7% in the United States, and 2.1% in Mexican cities for each one-degree increase in monthly temperature.  They also analyzed depressive language in more than 600 million social media postings and found deterioration in mental well-being during periods of increasing warmth. 

Acknowledging the risk of rising heat or plummeting temperatures for those who are alone is not new. Most communities have shelters not only for weather-related catastrophes like hurricanes, but also during periods of extreme cold and heat. But now communities across the globe are becoming aware of the seemingly more frequent occurrences of extreme weather, perhaps due to climate change. Snow or ice storms in areas that used to have mild winters, heat waves which cause temperatures to rise to almost unlivable conditions, massive fires, flooding, or more frequent tornadoes have accelerated the need to identify the socially isolated.   

Italy has, for example, a program to increase a community-based support network for adults 75 and older, to make sure no one is overlooked when the next dangerous heat wave affects their country. Neighborhood volunteers reach out to those who, because of sickness or social isolation, might be vulnerable to extremely hot conditions. These individuals are enrolled in a program and are contacted periodically to offer a variety of health-related interventions, and to make sure they get help during a heatwave.

Many municipalities will reach out to people 65 and older when extreme weather is forecast, to tell them where they can go for shelter if they do not have adequate heat or air-conditioning. But often the call is robotic and no follow-up is provided. Moreover, the calls are made to landlines, so those who have only a cell phone would not be contacted. A relative who is a public health official in a small town told me that her office will send out social workers to check on elderly individuals living alone when bad weather is predicted, to make sure they have heat, or air conditioning and food. Organizations staffed with volunteers do the same in large city neighborhoods, but as with the Italian program, people have to sign up to get these services.  

Identifying those who might be at risk during periods of extreme weather must now be a high priority, as such conditions are no longer rare. But identifying those in need of community services also requires respect for their need for privacy, and perhaps the desire not to be perceived as needy. One possibility is to provide cell phones and Internet service to the socially isolated (and find an elementary school student to teach them how to use the devices). Apps such as NextDoor could then be used to connect the individual to the neighborhood, and ideally make others in the neighborhood aware that they might need help during a hurricane, blizzard, or extended heatwave. And if the hand of friendship and concern continues to be extended when the weather returns to normal, perhaps the chronic social isolation will lessen.

References

“Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review,” Holt-Lunstad J1, Smith T2, Baker M3, Harris T3, Stephenson D, Perspect Psychol Sci. 2015 ;10:227-37.

“Social disconnectedness, perceived isolation, and health among older adults,” Cornwell E, Waite L. J Health Soc Behav. 2009; 50:31–48.

“The Impact of Weather on Mobility and Participation in Older U.S. Adults,” Clarke P, Yan T, Keusch F, Gallagher N, Am J Public Health.  2015; 105:1489–1494.

“Higher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and Mexico,” Burke M, Gonzalez F, Baylis P, Nature Climate Change 2018; 8:723-729.

“Social Interventions to Prevent Heat-Related Mortality in the Older Adult in Rome, Italy: A Quasi-Experimental Study,” Liotta G, Inzerilli MC, Palombi L, et al, Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018; 15:715-721.