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Social isolation & loneliness among older adults during the COVID-19

Social isolation & loneliness among older adults during the COVID-19

Senior woman with cup, reflecting on social isolation during COVID-19

By Joanne Richard.

Loneliness has long been a growing public health concern in Canada and globally, and COVID-19 is making the loneliness epidemic even worse, especially for the elderly. Older adults are particularly harmed — virtual hugs and kisses don’t cut it. NORC at the University of Chicago found the pandemic has made about a third of adults 70 and older lonelier than usual.

“Increased insolation has lead to many seniors worrying about not having enough time left to see there families and connect,” said registered psychotherapist Joshua Peters. And the “upcoming holiday season will  be especially difficult for seniors who worry about the number of holidays they have left in their lifetime.”

The enforced isolation in care homes and assisted living facilities has been particularly traumatic – “this can result in an out of sight, out of mind experience that leaves seniors vulnerable,” said Peters, Clinical Manager the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships (CFIR).

Social disconnect isn’t just a problem for the elderly. Anyone, anywhere, of any age can experience loneliness, and with it much pain and suffering, according to Dr. Ami Rokach, a York University professor and clinical psychologist specializing in treating and researching loneliness. “All of us want, and need, is to belong and to be loved.”

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COVID-19 fallout is seeing many older people closed off from family and friends, and bombarded with messages that they are vulnerable, on their way out, and should be extremely cautious, Rokach said. “While they need to be cautious, all that, together, isolates them, physically and socially, and for those who translate social isolation to loneliness, it is frightening, alienating, and creates uncertainty.”

Loneliness is debilitating mentally and physically: “It is known to weaken the immune system, lengthen the period of illness, slow recovery, contribute to heart attacks, high blood pressure, dementia in the elderly, and may even hasten death in the old,” Rokach reported.

Loneliness leaves the person believing that s/he is not important, unlovable, and does not belong, he said. “Being confined to home, as many elderly may be, feeling like they are forgotten and even abandoned, can clearly affect their mental health.”

Peters is optimistic that most seniors will bounce back from this experience assuming that some state of normalcy returns. “Seniors are a hardy and resilient group. They have lived through many world events that have challenged their way of life and survived,” he said.

Connecting with family and younger generations is essential to older adults’ wellbeing, Peters stressed. “This allows for social connection and meaning as well as contributing to a sense of generativity — the need to nurture and guide younger people and contribute to the next generation. Generativity is one greatest predictors of wellbeing in older adults.”

Safeguarding their wellbeing requires support and community: “Likely we’re headed in the wrong direction if we push seniors into facilities that encourage an outsourcing of care when we have opportunities to provide it elsewhere.”

Ageing in place allows seniors to stay where they feel most comfortable and makes visits from family easier, added Peters. It also allows seniors greater independence as well as the ability to stay close to the networks they’ve create over a lifetime. 

“These networks are essential during times of crisis to provide support and connection,” Peters said. “A sense of community can combat the loneliness that many seniors may experience. These communities also provide space where seniors can share their wisdom with future generations.”

Unfortunately, many seniors facilities do not have the resources to create this type of community, he said, adding that they are less comfortable places to visit, which can make it harder to maintain connections

According to Peters, in order to get through this crisis, we need to ensure that we do not forget how vulnerable seniors are to being neglected and connect as much as possible. “In caring for seniors, it is also important to ensure they are given as much independence as possible. Respect should be given for their experiences and the lives that they have lived.” 

Key Ideas

Being alone does not, necessarily, mean being lonely, according to loneliness expert Dr. Ami Rokach. It just means being alone. “It may arouse boredom, some anxiety, and a wish to see and interact with others, but that does not loneliness make.

“Just like when we feel we wish to taste a piece of chocolate or a sweet treat does not mean that we are hungry.” Perception of the situation is very important.

Rokach offered these tips for seniors dealing with loneliness:

  • Friendships are critical. You may want to take some social risks and approach others whom you may know only superficially, with the goal of making friends, or those whom you know in order to deepen their friendship.
  • Technology allows us to be in contact with people who may be, physically, far away from us. There are screens which are very simple to operate, and which allow seniors to connect, via video, with others. It is worthwhile to have get some type of screen.
  • For those who can, participating in a volunteer activity is highly recommended. It is known to have many beneficial effects.
  • Usually we know that being nice to the world, results in the world being nice to us. That necessitates deciding to become active, and purposefully welcoming others, which will result in feeling welcome and valued by others.

What Can You Do?

Mental health expert Joshua Peters offered up this advice for families, friends and neighbours to help seniors cope with isolation and loneliness:

  • Send mail or make a phone call to seniors — even if they’re not in your immediate family. 
  • Volunteer with organizations that connect younger generations with seniors. 
  • Remind seniors of their importance to society and demonstrate it through acts of appreciation. 
  • Check in on senior neighbours to see how they are doing or if they need anything. They normally may have had visitors that can’t make it this year and your help could be invaluable. 
  • Always follow safety protocols. 

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