It is tempting to start thinking that the COVID pandemic will soon be a bad memory. Surely, among the older population there is a particular desire to put an end to the social isolation. They are among those who were – and still are – particularly impacted by the loneliness of the disease, not to mention that seniors are among the most likely to succumb to infection.
“Whether the pandemic will soon be over or not, is unknown at this point, bearing in mind that new variants can emerge at any moment as we have learned over the past two years. What we do know is that it has disrupted the lives of the most vulnerable among us. Prior to the outbreak of the disease in March of 2020, too large a percentage of the over-60 set were already living alone,” said Rebecca Weber, CEO of the Association of Mature American Citizens. “The pandemic sentenced an even greater number of seniors to solitary confinement.”
How bad is it?
The National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine reports that, “Social isolation and loneliness are serious yet under-appreciated public health risks that affect a significant portion of the older adult population. Approximately one-quarter of community-dwelling Americans aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated, and a significant proportion of adults in the United States report feeling lonely. People who are 50 years of age or older are more likely to experience many of the risk factors that can cause or exacerbate social isolation or loneliness, such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments. Over a life course, social isolation and loneliness may be episodic or chronic, depending upon an individual’s circumstances and perceptions.”
Obviously, COVID-19 has made isolation a chronic side effect for senior citizens. However, according to Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, a geriatrics specialist who teaches at the University of California, San Francisco, said that in the pre-pandemic era people – particularly the elderly – were reluctant to admit they were lonely. It was a sensitive topic, he said, suggesting that the pandemic appears to have “normalized” discussions about loneliness.
“This is a good thing,” according to AMAC’s CEO Weber. “We know, of course, that isolation has a serious impact on mental health, especially among the elderly. But it also can have a negative effect on their physical health. The World Health Organization compares the effect of social isolation and loneliness on mortality to such risk factors as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.”
Weber said that prior to COVID we didn’t pay much attention to seniors who lived alone. The pandemic revealed the negative mental and physical impact of isolation.
“You don’t need a medical degree to help them,” she said. “There is a lot that friends and family can do to alleviate the isolated conditions of seniors they know and even elderly individuals they don’t know. Many of us are already checking in on relatives and neighbors on a regular basis, chatting with them, engaging them and giving them the opportunity to interact with another human being on a regular basis. What we need now is more guardian angels.”