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. Isolation can affect the physical and mental health of seniors, no matter their living situation. Learn how to keep your loved one connected and prevent potentially damaging loneliness.
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 persist.
“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 helped physically protect people throughout the pandemic, but those same precautions 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.
In the most recent University of Michigan Poll, published in early 2023, those numbers have dropped again — but they still haven’t reached pre-pandemic levels of loneliness. Now, 34% of seniors report feeling isolated, while an additional 37% feel a “significant” lack of companionship.
It’s important to keep these trends in mind and focus on decreasing loneliness to pre-pandemic levels, since 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.”
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Loneliness can be as deadly as smoking or obesity, according to a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. Senior isolation may complicate existing conditions, encourage an unhealthy lifestyle, and affect cognition.
Senior isolation was a core concern during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a University of Washington study of social services and health care organizations across the state. According to the study, organization leaders expected the impact of social isolation in seniors to persist well after restrictions were lifted, 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 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:
Read related article:Depression in Elderly Adults: Signs, Symptoms, and Treatments
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.”
“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.
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From spending time with friends to visiting community centers or houses of worship, there are many ways for older adults to maintain connections. Even routine interactions, like checking out at the grocery store or chatting with the mail carrier, can offer much-needed socialization. Now that most older adults can participate in safe activities with family and friends again, 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 A Place for Mom’s Senior Living Advisors. They can discuss your family’s unique preferences and care needs to help you find the best fit, all at no cost to you.
Piette, J. (2020, September 14). Loneliness among older adults before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. University of Michigan.
Malani, P. (2023, March 13). Trends in loneliness among older adults from 2018-2023. University of Michigan.
Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. (2015). Loneliness: Clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science.
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.
Real World Health Care Editorial Staff. (2021, March 31). COVID-driven isolation can be dangerous for older adults. National Council on Aging.
Eckhart, K. (2020, October 21). Pandemic further isolating older adults, as senior services struggle to adapt. UW News.
United States Census Bureau. (2021, November 30). 2020 ACS 1-year experimental data tables.
Administration for Community Living. (2021, May). 2021 profile on older Americans.
SAGE. (2020, August 31). Startling mental health statistics among LGBTQ+ are a wake-up call.
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