Nearly one-third of all seniors live by themselves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s close to 14 million seniors aging alone. Senior isolation is both common and dangerous, and while living alone doesn’t inevitably lead to senior loneliness, the two often go hand in hand.
Early in the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged older adults — the group at highest risk for severe illness with COVID-19 — to stay home with few, if any, visitors. Many of those restrictions were lifted with the approval of coronavirus vaccines and booster shots in 2021 and 2022, and while the country has reached a “new normal” in many ways, increased social isolation and loneliness in older adults persists.
“My mother has lived alone several hours away from family for years,” said Imani, 53, a nurse practitioner in Atlanta. “She had a booming social life before the pandemic hit — garden club, yoga classes, and a church group. She was always busy. But partway through 2020, the lack of activity started to show. Her decline was shocking, even over FaceTime calls.”
It’s undeniable that social restrictions have helped physically protect people throughout the pandemic, but those same precautions have also limited seniors’ interactions with friends and family, leading to a stark increase in reported elderly isolation. In fact, 56% of older adults said they felt isolated in June 2020, according to a University of Michigan poll on healthy aging. That’s more than double the number of seniors who reported feeling isolated in 2018’s healthy aging poll.
This upward trend is worth noting because senior isolation can lead to depression, weight loss, cognitive decline, and other medical complications, research suggests.
“Mom was losing weight — you could see it in her face — and she would often tell the same stories as she had the last week,” Imani said. “At some point, she admitted she was only eating once or twice a day, without lunch dates with friends.”
Read on to learn the major mental and physical effects of elderly loneliness and how senior isolation has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. Plus, get tips on how to connect with and support seniors who are lonely or living alone.
Loneliness can be as deadly as smoking or obesity, according to a study published in the journal of Perspectives on Psychological Science. Senior isolation may complicate existing conditions, encourage an unhealthy lifestyle, and affect cognition.
Senior isolation has been a core concern during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a University of Washington study of social services and health care organizations across the state. Organization leaders expected the impact of social isolation in seniors to persist well after restrictions have been lifted, according to the study, leading to “exacerbated problems of dementia, depression, suicide risk, and disrupted care.”
They were right.
“Even after I started being able to see family again — after we were all vaccinated — I felt this pressing sense of depression,” Anne said. “I felt like I’d missed a year of my life, isolated from grandbabies and my son.”
Family caregivers agree social distancing and the stress of the pandemic have affected their aging loved ones. Sixty-two percent of adult children caring for their parents or elderly relatives say their loved one has suffered physically or mentally from senior isolation during the pandemic, according to a December 2020 survey from A Place for Mom. Some groups particularly affected by pandemic isolation include the following:
Elderly isolation remains a struggle, even without pandemic-related social distancing. As far back as the 1950s, psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann raised awareness about the dangers of loneliness, which she defined as the difference between someone’s “preferred and actual social relations.”
For many seniors, that gap has been caused by situations that will persist once the pandemic subsides.
“Even before the pandemic, I was living alone, and I did feel lonely sometimes because I was very social when I was younger,” Anne said. “Since my husband passed in 2014, it just hasn’t been the same.”
Here are seven contributing factors to senior isolation.
Before the pandemic, many seniors living alone maintained active social lives, regularly visiting community centers and friends. Additionally, routine interactions like checking out at the grocery store or chatting with the mail carrier offered much-needed socialization. Now that most older adults can participate in safe or socially distanced activities with family and friends, there are several ways to help your loved one feel more active and engaged.
“In October of 2021, we realized something had to change,” Imani said. “Mom didn’t want to go to senior living, but she also really didn’t know what it was all about.”
Imani’s mother ended up choosing an independent living community just a few blocks from her old home.
“I think she still drives past that house to check up on it,” Imani laughed. “She got to keep her friends and also made new ones. She’s started eating again, loves that there’s a beauty shop there, and has joined another Bible study in addition to the one at her church. It’s been a lifesaver for all of us.”
If you think senior living could help your loved one remain social and avoid senior isolation, reach out to one of our 400 free, local senior living experts. They can guide you through the process of finding the right fit for your family.
Administration on Aging. (2021, May). 2020 profile of older Americans. Administration for Community Living.
Our advisors help 300,000 families each year find the right senior care for their loved ones.
American Psychological Association. (2020, October). Stress in America 2020: A national mental health crisis.
Bennett, D.A., Schneider, J.A., Buchman, A.S., Barnes, L.L., Boyle, P.A., & Wilson, R.S. (2012). Overview and findings from the Rush Memory and Aging Project. Current Alzheimer Research, 9(6), 646-663.
Berridge, C., Parsey, C.M., Ramirez, M., Freitag, C., Johnson, I.M., & Allard, S.W. (2020). Caring for Washington’s older adults in the COVID-19 pandemic: Interviews with organization leaders about the state of social and healthcare services. University of Washington.
Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 238-249.
Eckhart, K. (2020, October 21). Pandemic further isolating older adults, as senior services struggle to adapt. UW News.
Holt-Lunstead, J., Smith, T.B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227-237.
National Institute on Aging. (2019, April 23). Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks.
Piette, J. (2020, September 14). Loneliness among older adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. University of Michigan.
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SAGE. (2020, August 31). Startling mental health statistics among LGBTQ+ are a wake-up call.
United States Census Bureau. (2021, November 30). 2020 ACS 1-year experimental data tables.