Seniors and Social Isolation: Tips for Combating Loneliness

It’s long been known that social isolation among older adults is a serious concern that can increase a senior’s risk of experiencing not just anxiety and depression, but also adverse effects on physical and cognitive health. With the onset of COVID-19 permeating cities, states and countries across the globe, the factors that contribute to social isolation are seemingly unavoidable.

This reality has been particularly challenging for the senior population, who are both more vulnerable to the severe respiratory symptoms of the coronavirus and more prone to suffer from the outcomes of social isolation. As acute loneliness becomes increasingly detrimental to the emotional, mental and physical health of older adults, it’s vital to ensure that you or your aging loved one are accessing the information and support you need to address these issues head on.

There are ways to stay socially engaged and keep loneliness from overtaking everyday life, even while you observe social distancing guidelines and prioritize safety. This article provides helpful insight for navigating these current challenges and combating loneliness among seniors.

What the Research Says

According to the National Institute on Aging, there’s a distinct correlation between social isolation/loneliness and disruption to physical/mental health:

“Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk.

Conversely, people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function, studies show.”

In the midst of a global pandemic that has people of every age (and older adults in particular) self-isolating and practicing strict social distancing behaviors, even many of those people who regularly engage in meaningful activities have found themselves at a loss in terms of how to stay connected and emotionally healthy.

“It’s a public health crisis that should be recognized,” said Colleen Galambos, a gerontologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, in a recent New York Times article. “People who normally wouldn’t be considered isolated or lonely are now experiencing it.”

What Seniors Can Do About It

Yes, these are trying times, and yes, it can feel like an uphill battle. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t effective steps we can take to maintain as much connection and positivity as possible, even while the spread of COVID-19 threatens public health and dramatically transforms social norms.

For starters, check out this list of creative ideas compiled by AARP to help keep a loved one engaged and prevent social isolation:

  • Send snail mail: Think handwritten cards and letters over electronic communication so recipients can display them and continually remind themselves that you care.
  • Share a virtual meal: Plan a long-distance date by ordering a favorite meal and having it paid for and delivered to your loved one. Then call or video-chat during the meal to share each other’s company as if you were physically together.
  • Use delivery services: Since you can’t visit and bring packages of your loved one’s favorite treats, consider arranging for a bulk delivery. For those in assisted living or independent living who still like to cook, get their grocery lists and do the shopping for them or use a shopping service.
  • Create a virtual book or movie club: If your kids are at an age where they love being read to, send Grandma or Grandpa some kids’ books they can read aloud using the video-calling feature on their digital device. Watching the same movie or TV show can also help spark discussion that spans generations.
  • Order a jigsaw puzzle: There are mail-order companies that specialize in custom puzzles made from photographs or a child’s artwork. You can have a puzzle of 15 to 2,000 pieces, depending on your loved one’s capabilities, delivered straight to their door.
  • Play a board game: Think about the games your family loved growing up, or choose any fun option for which both sides know the lingo and logistics. Make sure identical game boards are set up at your home and that of your loved one, and then play over the telephone. A video call will add dimension but isn’t necessary if everyone commits to narrating their actions.
  • Assemble a hobby box: Find a nice box, decorate it and fill it with items that your loved ones can come back to again and again, particularly ones that will work with their existing hobbies or interests.

Of course, you can also come up with your own ideas for staying in touch and promoting personal connection from afar. Be creative and try thinking outside the box to seek alternate ways of communication and engagement. Above all, be sure to seek professional advice or medical care whenever there are signs of experiencing a decline in physical or mental health.

How Technology Supports the Cause

“The good news is that, compared to past pandemics, there’s new technology that helps keep us together even when we have to be apart,” explains a Recode article. “The bad news is that the people who need those services the most — older adults — may also be the least able to take advantage of them. And while not all older people have problems using new technology, they are more likely to have trouble than any other generation.”

So, how can seniors best take advantage of technology to combat social isolation in this time of need?

“Amie Clark, co-founder of TheSeniorList.com, told Recode that she recommends devices that are specifically geared to older people to lower their barrier to entry. For example, a tablet like GrandPad should make the process of video calling and sharing photos as easy as it can possibly be. For seniors who can navigate a smartphone, Clark recommends apps like Facebook Messenger, Skype, and WhatsApp, which are ‘easy enough to set up and explain to all but the most technically disinclined.’

In the end, it’s all about using the resources at your disposal to make the most of the social opportunities available to you or the senior in your life. Rather than being intimidated by new technology, be encouraged by the chance it affords you and your loved ones to stay connected and overcome the difficult challenges this pandemic has presented.

For the most up-to-date and helpful senior health information regarding COVID-19, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institute on Aging.

Forest Hills of DC is an inclusive senior living community offering a full continuum of care and support for seniors in the Washington DC area. To get more information about how we cater to seniors in a safe and home-like environment, call us at 202.966.7623.

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