Nearly one-third of all seniors live by themselves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s close to 13.8 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.
Since March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged older adults — a group at highest risk for severe illness with COVID-19 — to stay home with few, if any, visitors.
These restrictions have helped to protect seniors throughout the pandemic, but also limited interaction with friends and family, leading to a stark increase in reported 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 isolation can lead to depression, weight loss, cognitive decline, and other medical complications, research suggests.
Learn the major mental and physical effects of loneliness, and how senior isolation has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. 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 Brigham Young University study. Senior isolation may complicate existing conditions, encourage an unhealthy lifestyle, and affect cognition.
Social 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 expect the effects of isolation in 2020 to persist well after restrictions have been lifted, according to the study, leading to “exacerbated problems of dementia, depression, suicide risk, and disrupted care.”
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 isolation during the pandemic, according to a December 2020 survey from A Place for Mom. Some groups particularly affected by pandemic isolation include:
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 more than ever, it’s vital for friends, family members, and acquaintances to reach out to seniors. Even 15 minutes of interaction a day — in person or virtual — can mitigate the effects of loneliness on seniors, according to the Administration on Aging (AoA).
Reaching out makes a difference. Social distancing from the coronavirus has made senior isolation more prevalent, but it’s also demonstrated how well we can communicate from afar. If you have aging relatives, call them, and encourage your family to do the same. If you run out of conversation topics, try asking these 20 questions seniors never get tired of hearing.
Volunteering decreases loneliness. The more volunteer associations to which a senior belongs, the lower their collective loneliness, according to the Administration on Community Living. Volunteering gives seniors a sense of purpose, and it allows them to engage in personal interests. The good news is that volunteering is possible even without social contact: Intergenerational programs allow seniors to help young children with reading over the phone or via pen pal letters, for example.
Technology solutions address loneliness. From Zoom video chats to innovative products designed especially for seniors, technology can bridge gaps between socially distant friends and family. Look into easy-to-use phones and tablets that offer additional features, such as brain games and digital assistants like Alexa and Siri. However, too much screen time can lead to fatigue and eye strain, so consider alternating between technology and good, old-fashioned phone calls. Other ways friends and families can use technology to connect include:
Exercise feels good physically and emotionally. Brisk movement helps ward off anxiety and depression in addition to offering physical health benefits. If you live in a neighborhood with socially isolated seniors, suggest taking a short walk together or spending time outside. During this time of social distancing, remember to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart.
Learning and exploring reduces cognitive decline. There are hundreds of online resources for seniors who want to learn from home. From video livestreams of zoos and museums to open online courses, there are mentally stimulating resources available to fit every senior’s interests.
Senior living prevents loneliness in seniors. Older adults are less likely to feel lonely when they have the opportunity to spend time with friends and peers. A senior living community counters many of the reasons for social isolation described above: Without having to worry about transportation, entertainment, or family dynamics, seniors have more time to live a life they enjoy.
Even when social distancing restrictions lift, many seniors will struggle with isolation. As far back as the 1950s, psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichman raised awareness about the dangers loneliness, which she defined as the difference between someone’s “preferred and actual social relations.” For some, that gap has widened during COVID-19 — for others, it’s been caused by situations that will persist once the pandemic subsides.
Administration on Aging. “A Profile of Older Americans.” https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2017OlderAmericansProfile.pdf
National Institute on Aging. “Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks.” https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks
University of Chicago. Loneliness: “Clinical Import and Interventions.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4391342/
Rush University Medical Center. “Rush Memory and Aging Project.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439198/
Brigham Young University. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.” https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1745691614568352
University of Michigan. “Poll on Healthy Aging.” https://www.healthyagingpoll.org/report/loneliness-among-older-adults-and-during-covid-19-pandemic
University of Washington. “Caring for Washington’s older adults in the COVID-19 pandemic: Interviews with organization leaders about the state of social and healthcare services.” https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/bitstream/handle/1773/46272/