We already know that older adults who live in group care facilities are especially at risk from Covid-19. However, many people do not realize that trying to isolate older adults comes with its dangers. As important as it is to have older adults age in place, it is also essential that this occurs without separating them from their friends, family, and the broader community. Unfortunately, many senior housing facilities fail in this regard because they are not designed to provide a society without the risks that come with living in a group facility. Yet, the evidence shows that older adults suffer mental decline when socially isolated and feel lonely.
The idea that social isolation comes at the cost of mental health, is not new. We all generally understand that human beings are social creatures. Not only do we form our identities in relation to other people, but we also gain feelings of support and belonging from our social networks. Social networks also provide us with the intellectual stimulus we need to grow and learn new things.
It has to be highlighted that there does seem to be a difference between social isolation and loneliness. According to the Administration for Community Living report, 28% of older adults in America, or some 13.8 million people, live alone. Still, many of these older adults do not report feeling socially isolated or lonely. On the contrary, the data suggest that there are 8 million older adults who suffer from social isolation or feelings of loneliness. Indeed, many people report feeling lonely or socially isolated despite being surrounded by friends and family.
So although we cannot say that because a person lives alone or in a group, they are, therefore, socially isolated or lonely, or not, it is clear that when older adults feel socially isolated or lonely, they suffer from a range of physical and mental conditions. For example, research has linked social isolation and loneliness to Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, cognitive decline, depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and a weakened immune system.
Several interventions can be put in place to help overcome feelings of social isolation and loneliness. One is to help older adults become more tech-savvy. For example, easy internet connectivity. This will give them access to a range of online activities, concerts, lectures, and other things that can keep them engaged and connected to the broader world. If you have chosen elderly home care for your older adult, you can encourage them to learn how to use digital devices. Care staff at care facilities can help older adults learn how to use digital devices. Many care homes that bought digital devices like iPads have reported that their older adults feel more connected and have something to fall back on when they cannot physically be with their loved ones.
Reach out to older adults and set up phone calls and video conference calls with your older adults. This tells them that you still care about them and think of them. It also gives them something to look forward to, if you can make it a regular thing. AARP’s Community Connections program is one such effort to keep older adults connected. You can get them to have a volunteer call your older adult, so they can build their social network and still feel like they have a life.