For Seniors, COVID-19 Brings a New Problem – Loneliness

For many seniors, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is crucial to protect the physical health of seniors. On the other hand, the solution – isolation and social distancing – can be just as detrimental as the problem.

Older adults are facing a difficult dilemma. Do they protect their physical health at the cost of their mental health? For most, the answer is simple – yes. Technology presents many opportunities to stay connected and enjoy social interaction. But for others, the answer isn’t as black and white.

How Seniors Have Been Impacted by Coronavirus

Seniors have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. An KFF analysis from July 2020 found that 80% of those who have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. were aged 65 or older. That same analysis found that in states with the largest shares of coronavirus deaths in older adults, there was a disproportionate number of deaths in long-term care facilities.

At the same time, visitation in long-term care facilities, assisted living facilities and hospitals has been severely restricted or even banned.

Social distancing rules and quarantine have inadvertently isolated seniors and increased loneliness. Along with poor mental health, loneliness may increase the risk of heart disease, dementia and stroke.

Human Connection May Play an Important Role in Health

Protecting senior health is of the utmost importance during the pandemic. However, many health experts argue that in protecting their health in the short-term, we may be causing bigger problems in the future.

A study from 2012, which was published in JAMA, found that loneliness in adults increases the risk of losing independence by 59% and death by 45%.

Loneliness can trigger a stress response that leads to inflammation and an immune response. These two effects, according to experts, contributes to the development of chronic diseases.

Isolation and quarantine have forced many seniors to stop engaging in activities that bring meaning and purpose to their lives, such as recreational and communal activities.

No one knows how the pandemic and the isolation it’s caused will impact the health of Americans over the long-term.

Addressing the Problem

To address the needs of seniors during the pandemic, Peter Reed, PhD, director at the Sanford Center for Aging in Reno, has suggested focusing on three key areas:

  • Telehealth
  • Daily essentials
  • Social support

These three core areas became the pillar for the Nevada COVID-19 Aging Network Rapid Response.

  • A telehealth team brought together geriatrics providers, primary care providers and social services to provide integrated care.
  • A daily essentials team brought medication and food to doorsteps.
  • A social support team provided phone calls to seniors twice a week, created a “virtual peer group” for conversations and provided technical assistance to help keep seniors connected with friends and family.

While technology can help seniors get some social interactions, there are challenges. Many older adults who are on tight incomes cannot afford an internet connection. But perhaps the bigger problem – one that cannot be solved with money – is the need for person-to-person interaction.

Developing proper guidelines and procedures to allow for cautious visits may help seniors keep loneliness at bay. The use of hand sanitizer, masks and appropriate social distancing rules among visitors are just a few of the steps medical professionals are calling for in nursing homes.

Understanding the Difference Between Loneliness and Social Isolation

Isolation and loneliness don’t always go hand in hand, and other medical professionals have cautioned against placing all seniors into one basket. Like any other group of people, seniors are incredibly diverse.

Those who are able to afford an internet connection and understand how to use technology have a much greater chance of getting through the pandemic without developing loneliness.

It’s important to understand the difference between loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness is a subjective emotion. It’s a feeling of being disconnected from people. Social isolation, on the other hand, is simply not being in close contact with other people or having close connections.

Many older adults have found that Skype and Zoom calls have helped them stay connected. Experts suggest arranging for regular phone calls and video calls to ensure that seniors get the social interaction they need.

Social isolation isn’t a new problem for seniors. Prior to the pandemic, a nationwide study found that 25% of adults over the age of 65 were socially isolated.

Although the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, it has also motivated many seniors to engage with technology and learn how to use it to stay socially connected to friends and family. 

The long-term effects of social isolation among seniors has yet to be seen, but hopefully, future studies shed some more light on the health consequences of loneliness. Until then, older adults will continue to face the challenge of protecting their health and maintaining that all-important human connection that we all need.