Although the prevalence of loneliness and isolation in seniors has been an enduring concern, the outbreak of the current COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased awareness and sensitivity to the issue. As a result of pandemic impacts, other populations are suddenly faced with a new social reality, prompting friends, family, and service providers to understand the elderly human experience more deeply and strive to minimize its negative outcomes.
Prevalence rates suggest that nearly 30% of older adults experience loneliness and/or social isolation and 5% report often or always feeling lonely. As reported by the National Institute on Aging, loneliness and social isolation can have long-term negative effects on older adults’ physical and mental health, including:
● Poorer cognitive function
● High blood pressure
● Heart disease
● Weakened immune system
● Cognitive decline
● Alzheimer’s disease
Individuals can become socially isolated for a variety of reasons. These reasons include growing older or weaker, the deaths of their spouses and friends, limited mobility, illness, or leaving the workplace. Older people also often have limited access to transportation, and fear that they will become burdensome to their family and friends. This may motivate them to stay at home, or refuse to accept offers for participating in family and social activities. Regardless of the circumstance, it is crucial for social workers, family, and caregivers to compensate wherever necessary and provide seniors with opportunities for social engagement, in order to mitigate the effects of loneliness and isolation.
Recognizing Isolation and Loneliness
Research shows that social isolation and loneliness overlap significantly, and are often used interchangeably. In social isolation, individuals lack contact with their social network. On the other hand, loneliness refers to a state of feeling alone, separated, or separate from others. This can be defined as an imbalance between desired and actual interpersonal contact. Even though gerontological researchers and social workers distinguish between loneliness and social isolation, they acknowledge that both of these issues negatively impact older people’s health and well-being, and thus emphasize the benefits of interventions that address both.
Addressing Loneliness and COVID-19
In light of the recent pandemic, loneliness and social isolation heightened amongst seniors who were forced to be separated from loved ones for extended periods of time. In residential facilities, patient isolation remained a priority, as well as a significant concern. Since families were unable to enter the facility, senior programming directors were challenged to come up with creative ways to alleviate their residents’ loneliness and isolation. Visiting from outside windows or from a distance in outdoor premises, became the new norm. Utilizing technology, such as Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and Hangouts has also been incredibly effective in keeping at-risk adults isolated, yet socially active. Re-thinking how to offer group activities with appropriate social distancing, or organizing compassionate visits for persons at the end-of-life posed an additional challenge for those who most appreciate the significance of social interaction for their patients.
Older adults living independently at home can face these challenges as well. Thus it is crucial to ensure the adult has a variety of occasions to engage in meaningful social activities. For loved ones living apart it is also important to keep consistent, open communication with on-site caregivers, or the elderly individual, to be assured that there are a variety of opportunities for social engagement, despite living independently.
How We Can Help
There are a variety of techniques on how caregivers can help reduce social isolation. With increased focus on the issue and a bit of proactive planning, caregivers, or even family and friends can easily help their loved one be set up for success. Here are some ideas:
Make a schedule
Creating a structure in day-to-day life, even if it may be difficult, offers the individual a sense of stability and purpose. Try setting an alarm to start the day at a reasonable time. Begin the week with a basic plan that outlines goals or activities for each day. Incorporate a combination of leisurely activities and chores, such as attending senior events, shopping, cooking a meal, a doctor’s visit, or taking a walk in a local park. Be sure to include something enjoyable and involve someone else’s company when planning the schedule.
Keep a Pet
Several studies have shown that pet attachment can alleviate loneliness by providing social support and companionship for the pet owner. Studies that evaluated the role of pet attachment or animal-assisted therapy demonstrated favorable effects on emotional well-being. A caregiver can help with pet care and maintenance so that the adult can enjoy full benefit, stress-free.
Discover New Friends
Facilitating opportunities to connect with new people is another way to alleviate isolation. Seniors can pursue their hobbies with like-minded peers, such as by joining a library society, sports venue, or knitting club. Caregivers can offer escort and companionship to adults pursuing their hobbies. There may also be local opportunities to connect with volunteers who are eager to join and facilitate new friendships.
Learn to love computers
In a fast-paced digital age, older adults often feel incompetent and isolated amidst a younger, tech-savvy generation. Explore opportunities for seniors to learn technology-related skills, such as corresponding by email, or following social media. Researchers have found that seniors who completed a 3-week computer training course and internet tutorial reported a significant decrease in loneliness. Caregivers can also offer ongoing assistance in this new experience.
Regardless of how you choose to fill the week, we encourage taking a proactive approach to combat loneliness and mitigate its effects. You can find additional caregiver resources on our website, and explore a variety of timely topics such as medical assistance, personal care, and senior companionship.
Reach out to us today to learn more about our team of caring and experienced personal caregivers, registered nurses, and home health aides who expertly serve families just like yours.
We’re here for you and happy to assist your family. Give us a call at (845) 425-6555 with any questions.
Gardiner C, Geldenhuys G, Gott M. Interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness among older people: an integrative review. Health Soc Care Community. 2018 Mar;26(2):147-157. doi: 10.1111/hsc.12367. Epub 2016 Jul 13. PMID: 27413007.
Cacioppo JT, Cacioppo S. Older adults reporting social isolation or loneliness show poorer cognitive function 4 years later. Evid Based Nurs. 2014 Apr;17(2):59-60. doi: 10.1136/eb-2013-101379. Epub 2013 Jun 8. PMID: 23749730.