Coronavirus in the U.S. Calls Attention to Senior Loneliness
During the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), “social distancing” has been the norm. Younger people complain about their favorite coffee bar closing, missing out on time with friends and the cancellation of events — but for seniors, the situation has been far more dire. News media feature photos of bedridden seniors looking forlornly out the windows of nursing homes, wondering when they will see their loved ones again. Senior centers and adult day services are shuttered. Many of the social opportunities available to older adults and people with disabilities have evaporated.
Advised to protect themselves from the coronavirus pandemic, many seniors are now more vulnerable to what for years has been called “the loneliness epidemic.” Loneliness is a distressing experience for humans. Studies have found loneliness is as bad for our health as obesity, or smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It raises the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, heart attack and hypertension. It’s a big factor in depression — and, say some experts, even shortens life by 50%.
Three recent studies published by the American Psychological Association (APA) offered important insights:
Loneliness increases with age
In the first study, Louise C. Hawkley, Ph.D., of NORC at the University of Chicago, revealed that seniors younger than age 75 who are in good health actually may be a little less socially isolated than were their counterparts of yesteryear. But with age and disability, that situation changes.
Social isolation can result from many of the common circumstances of later life, such as the loss of a spouse, declining health and mobility, retirement, and moving from our long-time home. More seniors live alone these days; fewer are married, and they have fewer children.
Feeling in control relieves feelings of loneliness
In a second study published by the APA, a research team headed by Bianca Suanet, Ph.D., of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam confirmed that spending time with others combats a sense of loneliness. No surprise there. But Suanet also found that having a sense of control over their social life lowers distressing feelings of loneliness for seniors. Even if they spend quite a bit of time alone, they experience less emotional distress if they believe there are social opportunities they could take advantage of if they wanted to.
Under any circumstances, that can be challenging for today’s seniors. Says Suanet, “People must manage their social lives better today than ever before because traditional communities which provided social outlets, such as neighborhoods, churches and extended families, have lost strength in recent decades.” Fortunately, seniors today also have resources that their parents and grandparents didn’t have, such as video chatting, social media and email — especially valuable at the current time.
Close ties and casual ties are both beneficial
A third study from the APA offered the good news that even though older adults have smaller social networks than younger people, quality can make up for quantity. Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Ph.D., of the University of Leeds noted that older adults report greater satisfaction in their relationships. “Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have, and more to do with how you feel about your friends,” de Bruin said.
On the other hand, much research has demonstrated an emotional boost provided by “weak ties” — contact with people who aren’t close to us, yet who are in our lives, perhaps the grocery clerk, our mail carrier, the bus driver, or the receptionist at our medical clinic. Even brief interactions are nourishing. Advised to avoid this type of contact during the coronavirus pandemic, people have benefited from similar interactions on social media and other internet platforms. Some elders have ventured onto Facebook for the first time during the pandemic. When it comes to human interactions, every little bit helps.
In-Home Caregivers Provide an Important Human Connection
With all the publicity about nursing homes and assisted living communities during COVID-19, what about seniors who are aging in place? During the self-isolating period of the coronavirus pandemic, seniors living at home, too, have had very limited access to their usual social connections.
“As a society, we are facing unprecedented challenges presented by COVID-19,” said Brian Petranick, CEO and President of Right at Home. “As a leading provider of home care services, we recognize our team serves a vulnerable population, and we take that privilege very seriously. Potential exposure will remain lowest for those who can stay in their homes, wherever they may call home, with limited outside contact. It is our desire to work with you and your family to maintain this option for your loved one.”
For many of these seniors, home care has been providing the support they need, and not only in the usual ways you might think, such as assistance with personal care, housekeeping, transportation and meal preparation. Not only now, but in “normal” situations, having a caregiver provides an important sense of human connection. Caregivers also help keep clients connected in the community — though these days, that might consist of assisting with communication technologies.
With a trained, professional caregiver on hand to help their loved ones remain safe at home, families gain the peace of mind that allows them to focus on their other tasks, and to maintain their own social connections. Professional in-home care improves the quality of time seniors and families spend, both away from each other and together.
Extended Reading: Get tips on how you can avoid loneliness during social distancing.