Managing Social Isolation During the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Advice Series from Area Agency on Aging Experts

Guest Contributors: Kay Vanags and Stacie Speirs

“Social distancing” in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic has created confusion and new challenges for older adults, individuals with disabilities, and family caregivers. For these individuals, social distancing has heightened the experience of loneliness and social isolation. With this guest blog from experts in Iowa’s aging network, we will define the experience of social isolation and focus on ways to limit the social isolation experience during a time of social distancing.

From the Field: Mrs. Smith, an eighty-five-year-old widow, has lived alone in a retirement complex in a small rural town. While she has lived alone, Mrs. Smith was far from socially isolated. Mrs. Smith and a few of the other women in the complex would gather in the lobby regularly to drink coffee, to talk about the local news, or to play cards. She also looked forward to the home delivered meal volunteer bringing her lunch, because he always made her laugh. Mrs. Smith’s daughter, Cindy, would visit her every week and assist her with chores whenever needed. These personal connections reduced Mrs. Smith’s feelings of loneliness. However, when the pandemic occurred and people were asked to practice social distancing, Mrs. Smith’s opportunities for social interactions stopped. Cindy could no longer visit. The retirement complex lobby closed. Mrs. Smith and her friends stopped their regular meetings. The home delivered meals now come in a frozen pack once a week and are left outside her door. These necessary changes have enhanced Mrs. Smith’s experience of social isolation.

According to the Administration on Aging (2017), about 28% of older adults live alone but many do not report feeling socially isolated or lonely. This means that living alone does not necessarily mean that an older adult is experiencing loneliness or social isolation. Further, people who are surrounded by people can feel lonely. While scientists debate whether loneliness and social isolation work hand-in-hand or are separate experiences (see Cacioppo, Capitanio, & Cacioppo, 2014), we do know that social isolation and loneliness can increase health risks (National Institute on Aging, 2019). Social isolation is the complete lack of contact or the physical separation from other human beings. Loneliness can have negative physical and emotional consequences including increased blood pressure (Hawkley, Thisted, Masi, & Cacioppo, 2010 ), increased arthritic pain (Tomaka, Thompson, & Palacios, 2006), and depression (Golden et al., 2009). Even during times of social isolation, there are ways to reduce the experience of social isolation and, therefore, reduce the health risk for feelings of loneliness and the other negative heath risks associated with loneliness.

Mrs. Smith has been fortunate in reducing her experience of social isolation because her daughter, Cindy, still calls her mom regularly. Mrs. Smith also receives weekly “check-in” calls from her local Area Agency on Aging. While it is not the same as the personal contact with her daughter, her friends, and her home-delivered meal driver, Mrs. Smith reports treasuring the phone calls so that she can feel connected.

In the coming weeks we will be sharing tips from our experts on how to reduce social isolation as part of our campaign to value aging during Older Americans Month, which occurs annually during the month of May.

References:

Administration for Community Living (2017). Profile of Older Americans. Accessed April 27, 2018 at https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2017OlderAmericansProfile.pdf.

Cacioppo, S., Capitanio, J.P., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2014). Toward a neurology of loneliness. Psychological Bulletin, 140(6), 1465-1504.

Golden, J., Conroy, R.M., Bruce, I., Denihan, A., Greene, E., Kirby, M., & Lawlor, B.A. (2009). Loneliness, social support networks, mood and wellbeing in community-dwelling elderly. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 24(7).

Hawkley, L.C., Thisted, R.A., Masi, C.M., & Cacioppo, J.T. (2010). Loneliness predicts increased blood pressure: 5-year cross-lagged analyses in middle-aged and older adults. Psychology and Aging, 25(1), 132-141.

National Institute on Aging (2019). Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks. Accessed April 27, 2019 at https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks.

Tomaka, J., Thompson, S., & Palacios, R. (2006). The relation of social isolation, loneliness, and social support to disease outcomes among the elderly. Journal of Aging and Health, 18(3), 359-384.

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