During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been told to shelter in place. For
many of us, sheltering in place has been a way of life before COVID-19.
The Health Resources & Services Administration states that two in
five Americans report they sometimes or always feel their social relationships
are not meaningful and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated.
And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a quarter of the U.S.
population (28 percent) of older adults live alone.
World Health Organization reports, social isolation can be as damaging
to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem worsens as we get older.
Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature
death from all causes. A risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity,
and physical inactivity.
Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk
Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness)
was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased
risk of stroke.
Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly four
times increased risk of death, a 68% increased risk of hospitalization,
and a 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
The late Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of
Chicago, studied the effects of loneliness for two decades before his
passing in 2018. After suffering a near-fatal car crash and having what
seemed to be a transformative revelation, he concluded that love and social
connections are what really matters in life. He equated loneliness with
a type of hunger, noting that establishing social connections is essential
for human survival. He also believed that chronic loneliness can increase
the incidence of early death.
One would think that knowing if we are being affected emotionally or physically
from loneliness would be easy for us, loved ones, and our health care
providers to recognize; however, this is not always the case. Like chronic
depression or pain, over time we start thinking and believing it’s
just a normal way of life. In a recent article AARP shares, Kerstin Gerst
Emerson, a clinical assistant professor at the Institute of Gerontology
at the University of Georgia in Athens. “You can’t give the
patient a blood test or an MRI.” Instead, diagnosis depends on asking
questions. Living alone isn’t always the problem, although it can
be. More important, say, experts, is a subjective feeling of social separation.
“We’re all lonely from time to time, but the problems come
when someone is chronically lonely, day in and day out,” says Steve
Cole, a professor of medicine and genomics researcher at the University
of California in Los Angeles.
Here are some Tips to Help with Social Isolation and Loneliness
Take time to talk to family and friends- phone, virtual platform, email
and social media
Keep up a healthy lifestyle - eat a balanced diet, exercise and get quality sleep
Take up a new hobby you always wanted to try
Get as much sunlight, fresh air and nature as you can
Practice relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness
If new and social media makes you feel fearful or anxious, unplug
If you are socially distancing and feeling lonely because of Covid-19,
remind yourself this is a temporary period of isolation
Confide in family and friends how you are feeling
Take part in an in-person support or virtual support group
If you suspect you are suffering from chronic loneliness, talk with your
provider or mental health professional. They can refer you to a mental
health professional to see if individual or group therapy in-person or
via teletherapy is right for you. Just like a medical condition, it will
only get worse if untreated.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately. If
you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts,
call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).
Senior Life Solutions at Kirby Medical Center is an intensive outpatient
group therapy program designed to meet the unique needs of older adults
suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression often related to aging.
For more information, or if you know an older loved one experiencing isolation
or loneliness and is in need of help, contact us at 217-817-8525.