The Challenges of Social Isolation for the Elderly

COVID-19 has created new challenges for the elderly and their families.

Posted Jun 29, 2020

Octogenarians have witnessed the Great Depression, World War II, the outbreak of polio, and the Vietnam War. They have experienced more of life than most of us reading these lines. When faced with the latest public health crisis, my 84-year-old father told me he has been through all of the above and has lived to tell about it. His genuine calm both inspired and perplexed me. His rolling-with-the-punches demeanor caused me to ask myself: How well can high-risk people live when self-quarantining seems to be the safest option?

It turns out they can manage quite well.

Katharine Esty is a practicing psychotherapist, widowed mother of four grown sons, grandmother, and activist for aging well. Her recent book, Eightysomethings: A Practical Guide to Letting Go, Aging Well, and Finding Unexpected Happiness, delves into the practice of living a full life well into old age.

Worried about the most vulnerable during this pandemic, I reached out to chat with her about loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic and the harmful effects of self-isolation in senior communities. She offered some great advice.

Dr. Katharine Esty, used with permission
Source: Source: Dr. Katharine Esty, used with permission

Old age is not what it used to be. For the first time ever, most people in the United States are living into their 80s, often pain-free and truly happy. The first guide of its kind, Eightysomethings changes our understanding of old age with an upbeat and emotionally savvy view of the uncharted territory of the last stage of life. With insight and humor, Dr. Katharine Esty describes the series of dramatic and difficult transitions that 80-somethings usually experience and how, despite their losses, they so often find themselves unexpectedly happy.

Living into your 80s doesn’t have to mean declining health and loneliness: Dr. Esty shows readers how to embrace—and thrive during—the later stages of life. Based on her more than 120 interviews around the country, Esty explores the lives of ordinary 80-somethings—their attitudes, activities, secrets, worries, purposes, and joys. Esty adds her wisdom and perspective to this multi-dimensional look at being old as a social psychologist, a practicing psychotherapist, and an 85-year-old widow living in a retirement community. According to Dr. Esty, adult children—often bewildered by their aging parents—need a wise guide like Eightysomethings to help them navigate their parents’ last stage of life with real-world guidelines and conversation starters. 

“People in their 80s are happier than at any other time in their lives,” she told me in a recent phone interview. “Brain research states that our brains evolve when we get older, which leads to less anxiety, worry, stress, and anger. People in their 80s are less driven and, in many ways, have set aside certain ambitions. We truly live in the now due to our time short horizon.”

It appears the "Power of Slow" truly can lead to happiness.

Enjoy the little things.

Because people of all ages today have seen their lives reduced or restricted in uncustomary ways, Dr. Esty encourages people to enjoy the small things that life offers: the family pet, the sunset, a nice cup of Joe. A lot of people have more time on their hands than ever before, and we can use it to embrace more time connecting with family and friends. If you are feeling down, she suggests reaching out to someone worse off than you. It can help frame your perspective in a new way while making not only you but the other person feel better too.

Allow grief to enter the room.

The majority of octogenarians have experienced some sort of loss in their lives: Whether it is a spouse, a parent, or a sibling, they have learned to grieve and have dealt with that loss. “If you deny or try to jump over grief, you will suffer longer,” she said. “We have to learn to work through it. It is a part of leading a resilient life.” 

Even if you have not lost a loved one, the world has experienced a shift in the way we live our lives. Coming to grips with our own mortality is a healthy way of leading a happy life. In her experience, adult children of people in their 80s tend to project their own anxiety onto their elderly parents.

“Connect with your elders instead of trying to boss them around. Ask them if they are lonely or want your help.” Being of service to others can help us regain a sense of control over our circumstances. 

Be warned, however: Grief work takes time. As a still-practicing psychotherapist, Dr. Esty encourages her clients to feel the sadness and to work through it at their own pace. 

Acknowledge others

Saddled with multiple responsibilities, younger generations are facing restrictions in ways they never have before. That leads to heightened anxiety and depression. Dr. Esty states that focusing on our relationships can help people of all ages. Telling our aging parents that they matter can help rebuild connections to offset loneliness and despair.

According to the National Academy of Sciences' study on social isolation and its impact on the elderly, 43 percent of adults aged 60 and above reported feeling lonely. Social isolation, defined as an objective state of lacking social contact with others, and loneliness, defined as the subjective sense of lacking social connection, can heighten people’s risk for dementia, a compromised immune system, and hospitalization. It can even raise mortality among older age groups.

As a vibrant 85-year-old, Dr. Esty has had her share of loneliness too. During the early days of the lockdown, she was required to stay within her four walls for nearly six weeks. She observed that the people in her retirement community who excelled the most during that time were those who maintained a routine.

“Remembering what we know about managing our time and our lives is essential for leading a happy life. Routines offer a soothing quality.” No matter your age, however, she suggests maintaining consistent rituals, such as exercise, meditation, and yoga, which can have an enormous impact on our well-being. 

Dr. Esty’s mission is to reimagine our view on aging. “You can still have engaging relationships, pursue your interests, and enjoy your life aged 80 and above,” she insisted. Community and connection are the keys to a happy life.

When I hung up the phone with Dr. Esty, I reached for the dial pad. It was time to call my dad again and ask him how he was doing. But this time, I would humbly listen to his response without all the precautionary directives and concentrate on what was most important: time spent together despite the miles of separation. 


Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. National Academy of Sciences, 2020.