Social distancing can increase loneliness, especially among older adults. Finding ways to stay connected through phone and virtual visits can combat social isolation.
To say that we are currently living in an unprecedented moment is a vast understatement. The pandemic has upended the norms for how we live our lives, go about our daily routines, and interact with others in ways that are unsettling and anxiety-provoking for all of us. By now, we are all very aware of the public health mandate to maintain social distance from others in order to minimize spread of the coronavirus.
For older adults, the current emphasis on social distancing can be especially stressful, and for some, it has hit particularly hard. Across the country, older adults in retirement communities and assisted living facilities are being asked to self-isolate in their apartments or rooms. Communal meals and group social activities have been eliminated. Senior centers have closed and religious institutions have stopped holding in-person services. Travel restrictions in many parts of the country prevent older adults from visiting with their adult children, and nursing homes are forbidding families from visiting residents.
The elderly are more at risk for adverse health outcomes from exposure to the novel coronavirus and so these measures are appropriate from a public health standpoint. However, for older adults, social distancing also increases isolation and loneliness, which can have negative consequences for emotional and physical well-being. Both loneliness and social isolation can increase risk for anxiety and depression. In addition, social isolation and loneliness are well-known risk factors for adverse health outcomes and increased risk for mortality.
Fortunately, there are ways to stay socially connected despite the distancing. Here are some suggestions of ways to mitigate the negative effects of isolation:
1. Regular phone calls are great ways to remind the older person to take scheduled medications and to just say hello.
2. FaceTime and video chats, if possible, are especially effective ways of including the older person in what’s happening in your family’s life.
3. Including older relatives in group video gatherings, if technically able, to participate in family game nights or group dinners.
4. Sending emails, texting, and don’t forget “snail mail” letters and cards and drawings from grandchildren.
5. Having gifts delivered that the older person might enjoy.
6. Checking in frequently to see if the older person needs groceries, medication, or other household items that can be ordered for them or brought to their home.
It’s incumbent on all of us in our roles as clinicians, family members, and neighbors, to reach out to the older people we know who may be spending most of the day alone in their homes, apart from the family, friends, and activities that give their life meaning. Focusing on all the ways to stay connected despite the distance can go a long way to combat the loneliness and isolation that social distancing can bring.