Loneliness and Isolation: Unexpected COVID-19 Symptoms
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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing regulations have aimed to protect the most vulnerable populations from infection and death. Since seniors face a particularly high risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe reactions, many measures were introduced with them in mind. Long-term care facilities, for example, have largely closed their doors to visitors, eliminated group activities, and taken other precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19 within their walls.
In spite of these measures and ongoing efforts from the medical community, the senior population has suffered far more than any other over the last year. Seniors — particularly those living in long-term care facilities — have accounted for a huge portion of the country’s deaths from the virus. What’s more, the realities of socially-distanced life have forced them to contend with unexpected symptoms of the virus: loneliness and isolation. In many cases, the precautions designed to protect seniors have made the pandemic even more harrowing.
COVID-19 and Isolation
Even prior to COVID-19, loneliness was endemic throughout the U.S. senior population. 43% of seniors living at home reported feelings of loneliness in a 2020 survey and a quarter are considered socially isolated. Those seniors once had the option to spend time with friends and family or engage in community activities, but they’re now largely stuck indoors. Some older adults may go days or weeks with nothing but the most minute human interactions. Delivery employees, for example, may provide for the bulk of an isolated senior’s face-to-face conversations. One study found that loneliness nearly doubled by June, when the pandemic was only in its third full month.
Conditions are even worse for seniors living inside long-term care facilities. With in-person meetings and group activities off the schedule, many residents have been forced to go without their usual means for alleviating loneliness and its related symptoms.
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The Effects of Isolation on Seniors
Unfortunately, the same qualities that make seniors especially vulnerable to COVID-19 make them vulnerable to the tangible mental and physical side effects of long-term isolation. While loneliness is merely a sad state for certain Americans, it can prove deadly for older individuals with pre-existing conditions and/or compromised immune systems.
Numerous studies have linked loneliness to a range of symptoms and an elevated risk of premature death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lonely seniors are 50% more likely to develop dementia, 32% more likely to experience strokes, and 29% more likely to suffer from heart disease. This is in addition to other conditions, including:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Increased blood pressure
Loneliness continues to compound the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the vaccine rollout hitting several roadblocks in its early weeks, it promises to remain a nationwide concern for some time.
Fighting Loneliness and Isolation
In an article for Global Health Research and Policy, New York University’s Dr. Bei Wu addresses the combined impact of loneliness and COVID-19 on the U.S. senior population. She offers strategies for healthcare professionals, governments, and anyone looking to tackle the issue:
- Promote both social distancing and connection: The desire for human interaction is no excuse to put yourself or others at risk, but Wu encourages public health officials to emphasize the continued value of genuine connections. Strict emphasis on social distancing alone, she argues, can make a bad situation worse for vulnerable seniors.
- Leverage technology: Americans have all grown more familiar with video-conferencing applications this year and the companies behind tools like Zoom have worked tirelessly to make them more accessible and effective. There’s still a lot of work to do, says Wu. She suggests that technology companies should employ recent research and input from seniors to develop additional “person-centered applications.”
- Identify red flags: Since the effects of loneliness tend to multiply so quickly, Wu reiterates the importance of identifying warning signs early and taking the appropriate action. She calls on doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to use everything at their disposal in treating loneliness on both the individual and regional level.
Whether you’re a senior experiencing loneliness or a concerned family member, the resources to make a connection are at your disposal. Phone calls and Zoom meetings aren’t quite the same as connecting face-to-face, but they’re still the best many of us can do. Picking up the phone or logging on is one small way each of us can help to address COVID-19’s impact.