by: Anthony Cirillo, FACHE
You may have isolation fatigue from reading so much about social isolation these days – but it’s a real thing, impacting seniors at a high rate.
Shot of a senior woman looking thoughtful in a retirement home
One of the latest studies published in JAMA Internal Medicine says that homebound seniors aged 70 and older more than doubled, from 5% between 2011 and 2019 to 13% in 2020. According to researchers, the numbers of homebound seniors – meaning their ability to leave their place of residence is restricted without aid – would likely remain elevated through 2021 due to the pandemic.
Isolation Is Not Just an Issue for the Old
The AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation conducted a survey in 2020, publishing the results in The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report, which found that all adults are experiencing social isolation. The report says:
Two-thirds of U.S. adults report experiencing social isolation, and more than half (66%) agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused their anxiety level to increase, yet many aren’t turning to anyone for help.
Social isolation can be worse for one’s health than obesity, and the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Among women 50 and older, almost a third (29%) report going as long as one to three months not interacting with others outside their home or workplace during the pandemic. They’re also more likely to experience negative emotions than their male cohorts.
Even now as things open, increased social contact doesn’t mean you’re free from isolation and its impact on emotional and mental health.
Assess Your Isolation Risk
AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect platform offers an assessment test to determine whether you or loved ones are at risk of social isolation.
The assessment questions are pretty straightforward and the questions actually imply the answers. Here are a few examples.
Do you participate in social activities?
Do you regularly see or talk to a family member or a friend?
Do you have access to transportation?
Is it difficult or impossible to leave your home without assistance?
Do you avoid socializing because it’s hard for you to understand conversations?
In the last 6 months, have you experienced a major loss or change?
Fight Back to Stay Connected
The site also equips adults with tools they need to stay connected to their communities. In thinking about the future, and whether or not we’ll continue to have physical distancing guidelines in place, AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson urged people not to wait to take care of themselves.
Take the assessment to see if you or a loved one is at risk for social isolation, and connect to support services, she said. “Our Chatbot, a friendly voice, offers support, and there’s a searchable database of local support services for medical care, food, transportation and more.”
It’s clear the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in our health care system, like loneliness and mental health. But COVID-19 has also shed light on people’s priorities and proven that a majority of Americans aged 50 and older are looking forward to seeing and spending more time with family and friends.
Social connection can help anchor a productive and successful life, and must therefore be nurtured. When people are isolated, their access to support networks, information and mutually beneficial community contributions are compromised – making it more difficult to seek critical information, supportive services, access to employment and more.
How to Overcome Isolation
Here are some basic things to help you get started:
Build and maintain friendships. Even if you are physically isolated, there are groups on Facebook you can join that create community and tools like Clubhouse allow you to drop in on interesting conversations across the spectrum.
Stay involved in hobbies and activities.
It’s important to talk to family and friends to develop a plan to safely stay in regular touch.
Create a list of community and faith-based organizations that you can contact for support.
Consider a pet for companionship. But please do so with the idea of being committed to the animal. So many people bought pandemic pets and now are looking to get rid of them.
Research your transportation options. Getting somewhere is half the battle.
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance from others.
Untreated hearing loss can keep us from engaging. Get yours checked out.
Loss and big life changes can lead to depression. Talking through it can help.
A little creativity and a commitment tofilling up time productively can also help lower the emotional strain of being alone. I’ve kicked up my exercise routine and begun reimmersing myself in music lessons. I find that the satisfaction of spending energy on an activity that interests me can help offset the stress and anxiety of feeling lonely.
Robin Smith – licensed psychologist and The Oprah Winfrey Show’s therapist-in-residence – says that while social isolation was common among older adults even before the pandemic, it’s continuing to be a major societal problem. She advises adults to evaluate emotions and talk about feelings. We all have a role to play in addressing this complex issue, whether by seeking help ourselves or advising others to do so.
It can also be beneficial to identify daily things that lessen social isolation. Small and manageable steps, such as setting regular communication with family, or taking a 15-minute nature walk, can help you measure progress at a slow but steady pace. Together, let’s commit to increasing our coping abilities during what has been a difficult time for everyone.