Older adults are more at risk of social isolation and its health effects during pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has dealt a double blow to older adults — not only are they more likely to face severe illness from COVID-19, but they’re also in danger of suffering from the social isolation that circumstances demand.

A report from the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) done in the early months of the pandemic found that 60% of members were already seeing the negative health effects of social isolation, and 83% sought guidance on technology that could help tackle such isolation in their communities.

For this year’s Home for the Holidays campaign, n4a teamed up with the University of California’s San Diego Center for Healthy Aging to raise awareness about local programs that can help reduce social isolation and loneliness among older adults.

Sandy Markwood, CEO of n4a, said previous campaigns often focused on having difficult conversations with older family members and friends during the holidays on issues such as needing more assistance.

“This year, talk about difficult — 2020 has been a difficult year for all of us, especially for older adults,” Markwood said. “Older adults are especially at risk for social isolation and loneliness because a lot of older adults live alone, their social circles are a little bit smaller than they are for other people, and sometimes they have a harder time using technology.”

A key part of the campaign is recognizing the signs of social isolation, Markwood told WTOP.

“So, some of the questions that we’re encouraging family members or people to ask themselves are: How often do you feel that you lack companionship? Or how often do you feel left out? Or how often do you feel isolated from others?

Your answer to these really kind of indicates whether you might want to reach out and find ways to be connected,” she said.

The awareness campaign, geared primarily toward older adults who might live alone and their caregivers, offers various tips for staying connected during COVID-19. These include physical fitness ideas, virtual trivia games, wellness and caregiver support classes, letter-writing campaigns, check-in calls and tutorials on how to navigate the internet.

Markwood also recommended that older adults consider volunteering because “we know that it not only helps their health, but it also helps the health of whoever they’re … supporting.”

She said that Eldercare Locator, a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging, offers information on volunteering along with specific resources and services for older adults in communities across the country.

Markwood said loneliness among older people was already a problem before the pandemic. Now, with so many people socially distancing themselves in their homes or in nursing homes, which have limited visitation, those feelings of loneliness have been amplified.

And that can have long-term health effects that last far beyond the holidays, such as inflammation, heart disease and cognitive decline, Markwood said.

“What we know is that if you’re socially isolated, you are at 50% higher risk of dementia, 29% higher risk of heart disease and 32% higher risk of stroke,” she said. “And if you’re lonely, you are also at higher risk of depression and anxiety, and we’re also seeing higher suicide rates. So these are really important health issues.”

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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

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Anna Gawel

Anna Gawel joined WTOP in 2020 and works in both the radio and digital departments. Anna Gawel has spent much of her career as the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat, which has been the flagship publication of D.C.’s diplomatic community for over 25 years.

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