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Loneliness and Social Isolation Among the Elderly Amidst COVID-19 Crisis: How to Combat It.

Due to the outbreak of COVID-19, we were advised by the government and public health officials to maintain 6 feet apart from physical distancing from your friends, neighbors, and relatives to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Because of this, another outbreak worsened – social isolation, which can result in loneliness, and then depression in the worst-case scenario. It usually affects older adults and seniors, because they are more likely to experience living alone, loss of a loved one, having a chronic illness, and hearing loss. According to the recent report of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), wherein it is stated that over one-third of the adults aged 45 and older feel lonely. At the same time, almost one-fourth of the senior population aged 65 and above consider themselves socially isolated.

Though social isolation is typical, it may pose serious health risks, especially on the physical and mental state of the individual, such as cardiovascular diseases, obesity, anxiety, depression, weakened immune system, dementia, impaired cognitive functioning, and even death.

Hence, it is necessary for public health officials also to look and consider the adverse effects of social distancing and how it affects individuals, particularly seniors, so that they can create strategies on how to minimize its harmful effects.

 

How social isolation affects human health amidst COVID-19?

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, studies show that nearly 25% of Americans aged 65 and above experienced social isolation. About one-third of the population of middle-aged and older adults feel lonely.

Social isolation and loneliness are severe yet neglected public health risks. It affects a significant number of people, particularly seniors in the U.S. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it may add salt to the injury, causing a considerable increase in the population experiencing social isolation.

Why are we so focused on this social isolation? Does it have something to do about our health? Well, the answer is a big YES. Having a limited social connection and the feeling of isolation imposes different health-related conditions, which are often severe.

According to research, loneliness and social isolation are linked to a variety of physical and mental conditions such as:

  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Obesity
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Weakened immune system
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Delayed cognitive functioning
  • Death

 

According to a study, social isolation is also considered a risk factor for premature death, like smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity.

While physical and social distancing protects older adults from possible exposure from the coronavirus, it reduces the social interaction and connectedness of people. From this, older adult’s cognitive functions begin to decline since they no longer encounter meaningful social interactions from their groups or peers. As this social isolation continues to roll on, older adults are vulnerable to anxiety and depression, and worse, they may ponder about suicidal thoughts.

Besides this, staying at home also makes it difficult for you to engage in different physical activities such as walking in the park, jogging, and even going to supermarkets to buy healthy foods. Without physical activity and eating a well-balanced meal, your bones and muscles might weaken, leading to accidents like falling. Lack of exercise may lead to weight gain and other health problems such as heart disease, breathing problems, and high blood pressure. Eating healthy foods is also necessary for staying in shape and preventing health conditions.

Some people might think that social isolation might not be a big thing, well, for older adults who already experienced this kind of thing, including those who are living alone, having few financial resources, with chronic disease. Those with mental health concerns are at higher risk of experiencing the adverse effects of social isolation.

 

What can seniors do to overcome social isolation?

The immediate demand for COVID-19 testing, screening, and treatment made it harder for home care services and aging organizations to help the elderly. However, some home care services offer older people opportunities to maximize their time while staying in their homes or within their community, making use of the resources, programs, and services.

Some states, particularly in Maryland, are equipped with Telehealth Virtual Resource Center during the COVID-19 pandemic. They aim to deliver health care, health information, and other health-related services through two-way audio and video communication between healthcare providers and consumers.

The elderly can also consider taking these tips to keep them active and engaged amidst the outbreak of COVID-19.

  • Plan your whole day

While it seems boring waiting for every day to end, make sure to plan your whole day to keep up with your daily routines. For example, planning to wake up at 7 in the morning, getting dressed, and then doing your regular activities such as reading books, answering crossword puzzles, gardening, cooking, chatting with friends, or watering plants can make your day more meaningful.

  • Keep in shape by doing physical activities.

Doing some home exercises or just walking around your neighborhood can help make your day. There are many practical exercises and online physical activities on the internet, which can surely help overcome your social isolation, thus improving your connection and engagement with others.

  • Assess your risk for social isolation

You can assess your risk by taking the AARP Foundation Connect2Affect Tool by checking this site to know your risk for social isolation. You may go through their local assistance directory for any support services you might be looking for.

  • Go for a walk sometimes.

This new guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focuses on the elderly on how to keep safe during the COVID-19 pandemic when leaving home. Let’s say when going outside, make sure to wear a facemask, bring hand sanitizer, and tissue. Avoid having close contact with others, especially when they are not wearing face masks, and encourage others to wear face masks when going out in public places.

  • Accept kindness and support from others.

Many organizations and individuals are striving hard to keep the elderly socially connected amidst the pandemic. Be open to accepting help and support from others like your family, friends, primary care provider, and even social service staff.

 

Strategies to decrease social isolation

Different personalities can help in addressing this additional concern about social isolation. Below are some strategies that can relieve this epidemic of social loneliness during this COVID-19 crisis, but of course, in-person support is still an effective way to combat this issue.

 

Technology plays a vital role. 

During this time, it is necessary to think of innovative and creative ways to improve the social connection for older groups of the population. You may consider some technology-based interventions, such as your smartphone and tablet. There are many mobile applications such as Skype, Zoom, and WeChat, which can help you connect with your loved ones and see them face-to-face. With this, they will no longer feel lonely or isolated since they have someone to talk to.

In addition to this, family support through social media promotes evidence-based professional help, such as counseling, health promotion, access to information resources, and problem-solving.

Meanwhile, utilizing technology as a means for intervention in loneliness and isolation must be adequately studied, assure that it is proven effective when it comes to addressing social isolation.

 

Seek for easy access to telehealth 

Fortunately, Medicare expands its coverage for telehealth services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic to address specific issues, especially the mental health of every individual who feels lonely and isolated during this time.

Medicare enrollee may access virtual help from apps such as Betterhelp and Talkspace that helps people connect with a virtual counseling therapist. You may talk with your local Medicare agency about the coverage and the process to access telehealth platforms. Like New York, some states are equipped with a network of registered volunteer professionals that offer free counseling sessions and support during this crisis.

 

Rely on the government’s healthcare system

The country’s healthcare system is well-equipped in creating ways and methods to address social isolation and loneliness in different settings. By identifying first who are at higher risk, most probably, the geriatrics, and then assessing whether their condition is mild or severe, the health care providers may give the appropriate advice, intervention, and recommendation for people who need help.

To make this feasible, medical schools and training programs must include education and training related to social isolation and loneliness in their curriculum. Creating more strategic telehealth approaches can help older people and their families have proper access to screening facilities and healthcare providers to give treatment, diagnosis, and intervention of social isolation.

 

Takeaway:

This COVID-19 outbreak significantly affects older people’s health and physical well-being. It is a significant cause of social isolation and loneliness nowadays, imposes considerable risk factors for people’s health outcomes. Hence, these strategies mentioned above can significantly help address loneliness and social isolation in the elderly population.

As a concerned family member, providing your loved ones the best senior care is a top priority, especially amid pandemic where social distancing is highly recommended.

Latest posts by Katharina Villanueva, RN, BSN, CCRN-K, SCRN, CNRN, DN, CDP (see all)
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