Loneliness & Isolation Are Another Epidemic for Older Adults

A need for new approaches to COVID-19’s impact on mental health and aging.

Posted Apr 19, 2020

Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Bruno Martins on Unsplash

Guest post by Shane Jang

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the world. As this virus is known for rapid transmission and fatal results among older adults, the media and world are warning everyone, especially the elderly, to avoid people and stay at home. A recent article was published to study how keeping social distance raised loneliness and isolation for older adults. It demonstrated that this could be a big mental health problem if more studies are not done during the period of the pandemic. As the authors say:

“The impact of even short-term social distancing measures merits careful study. Simultaneously we will need to pay attention to how social distancing impacts the dynamics between older adults, their caregivers, and their treaters.”

The lead author of this article is Ipsit V. Vahia, M.D. who studied at Harvard Medical School in Boston and is working at McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA. The article was published on 21 March 2020 by the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry. The ten authors researched ideas based on existing studies about mental health and epidemics to see the first waves of epidemiological data and apply it appropriately to older adults. In this frontline research of COVID-19, they wrote in their article:

“These [effects] may include the distinct mental health impact related to the fatality risks from the coronavirus, stress around behaviors that may lead to contact/infection (including contact with caregivers), consequences from social distancing and isolation measures instituted by governments around the world and the neurobiological consequences of the resulting stress and inflammation that may increase vulnerability to mental health issues.”

One remarkable finding is from the retrospective studies of the 2003 SARS epidemic. One study shows rates of suicide among older adults soared during the period of the SARS epidemic. This implies that the study of elders’ mental health is needed in real-time to reduce negative impacts, especially when the society requires social distance.

Another finding is that the focus of research should be shifted, too. There is a need to research not only on how old age is a deadly risk factor for COVID-19 infection, but also the opposite. Studying why older people would not be infected or even why they would recover fully without long-term aftereffects would allow us to show resilience to older adults, protecting their mental health preventatively.

The study also found that lessons learned from managing the COVID-19 pandemic may not be the only lessons. In fact, there are many things that we can learn from older adults:

“Moreover, even as we assess the impact on aging individuals, we also account for their important contributions in disaster preparedness and response. Research has documented the important social capital, perspective and wisdom provided by these individuals in the form of their experience and pre-existing social networks. Thus, older adults may have important lessons to teach COVID-19 sufferers, as well as healthcare professionals from all age groups.”

 Older adults are not only a population we should protect but also one we can learn from. Of course, we should take care of each other amidst isolation in this socially distant season, but we should not loneliness become a pandemic itself. We must avoid the risk of excluding the older population in policy discussions and to work with them as helpful resources, not marginalizing them during COVID-19. This research also anticipates useful evidence-based data to guide the most effective and valuable care at this critical time. We should move on towards cooperation and connection with the new perspectives of research and resources in this epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

Shane Jang is a graduate student in the Humanitarian and Disaster Leadership M.A. program at Wheaton College. She received her B.A. from Kyung Hee University in Korea. In 2017, she received an appreciation plaque from the Korea Foundation for International Healthcare for her contribution to international development. You can contact Shane at shane.jang@my.wheaton.edu.


Vahia, I. V., Blazer, D. G., Smith, G. S., Karp, J. F., Steffens, D. C… & Reynolds III, C. F. (2020). COVID-19, Mental health and aging: A need for new knowledge to bridge science and service. The American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2020.03.007