By Helen Varvi, Deputy Director
Despite the significant portion of the older adult population that is affected, social isolation and loneliness are serious public health risks that are not taken seriously, especially during COVID-19. Even before the pandemic began, a 2020 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine indicated approximately one-quarter of older adults who are living in our communities – not in a nursing home or healthcare facility – are considered to be socially isolated. In addition, many report feeling lonely much of the time.
As coronavirus cases appear to be on the rise again in certain communities, it can be hard for older adults to see any end to the need for social isolation and distancing and the loneliness that can come with it. For months now, they have been following public health advice to reduce their risk of exposure by staying home to avoid infection and avoid life-threatening complications. But sheltering at home has also meant staying distant from family, friends and the places that kept them active and engaged.
Researchers at the Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging have been examining social connectedness in old age and the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness on physical and mental health for many years. They are particularly concerned about the paradox of government directives for physical distancing that protect older adults from COVID-19, but may be having unintended negative consequences. In other words, the COVID-19 safety guidelines to self-isolate have inadvertently created new health risks by leaving many older adults even more socially isolated and inactive than before.
Without frequent and meaningful social interactions and stimulation, older adults' cognitive functioning can decline. As the isolation wears on, older adults are especially susceptible to depression and anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Without exercise, muscles can weaken, leaving older adults more prone to falling.
Remaining at home also makes it harder to engage in healthy lifestyles, including physical activity and eating well. Social isolation is now viewed as a risk factor for premature death, similar to cigarette smoking, physical inactivity or obesity.
Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and need for social distancing, there are ways to help older adults remain connected. Phone calls and online platforms offer older adults ways to safely connect with peers and professionals; online learning can also provide interaction and intellectual stimulation.
Family and friends will need to work together to make sure they can remain connected without exposing each other to COVID-19 and be aware of their family and loved ones whose social activities have been disrupted during this COVID-19 outbreak.