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The other health risk older adults face during COVID-19 pandemic: Social isolation

Added stress and feelings of social isolation during social distancing efforts can increase health risks for older adults, but there are ways to cope.
Close-up picture of an old woman in self-isolation stares anxiously

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, populations are being required and asked to stay home to prevent widespread transmission of the disease. For many, this practice of social distancing can be trying on stress and mental health, and this is particularly true for older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are at a higher risk for severe illness.

Social isolation and health affects

Even before social distancing mandates, a 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 34 percent of respondents age 50 to 80 felt a lack of companionship and 27 percent felt isolated. Social isolation focuses on quantifiable measurements like a person’s social network size and access to resources, transportation and information, and is rarely caused by a single event for the aging population. Poor physical health, mental health issues, major life events like retirement and major losses are just a few select causes.

“Many people don’t realize or know that social isolation poses health risks that are comparable to smoking and being physically inactive,” said Marcia G. Ory, PhD, MPH, founding and co-director of the Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging.

Stress can manifest itself in different ways, particularly during times of infectious disease outbreaks. According to the CDC, these include:

  • Worrying about personal health and the health of loved ones
  • Changes in sleep, eating and activity habits
  • Difficulty sleeping that can include nightmares and upsetting thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Feelings of disbelief, anxiety and fear
  • Increased substance abuse

Coping with increased stress and physical isolation 

First and foremost, older adults should focus on how they can support their mental health during social distancing. The CDC recommends several personal measures that people can implement to support themselves.

  1. Take breaks from watching, reading or listening to the news.

“With today’s 24-hour news cycle, information is constantly at our disposal. While it is good to have the most up-to-date information, make sure you are taking breaks from it throughout the day. This includes social media,” Ory said. “The repetition can be upsetting and should not consume your day.”

  1. Listen to your body and take care of it.

Put into practice and continue preventative health measures to ensure a healthy body. These kinds of activities include meditating, doing deep breathing exercises, stretching, eating healthy, exercising regularly and getting plenty of sleep.

“Try to stick to your regular routine as much as possible, and incorporate activities you enjoy to give you time to unwind,” said Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH, CHES, FGSA, FAAHB, co-director of the Center for Population Health and Aging.

  1. Seek help if needed.

Share your stressors and anxieties with trusted family and friends. If these feelings persist for more than several days in a row, contact your health care provider for ways to manage.

Stay socially connected while physically apart

Making the time to talk and connect with others is even more important during social distancing. Social distancing does not have to mean social disengagement, so make sure you are maintaining social connection while physically distancing. According to the CDC, those at the highest risk for severe illness from COVID-19—and the most likely taking extensive measures to socially distance—are at the most risk for loneliness and isolation.

Ory adds that having a daily purpose is important and can keep you engaged. One highly recommended avenue is through virtual volunteering.

“Virtual volunteering can take several forms. From buying gift cards to supporting local small businesses to offering to teach virtual lessons for teachers and their classes, virtual volunteering can be done by any age group,” Ory said.

For those who are healthy and less vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, find out if your local community has a program that can match you with high-risk individuals needing grocery and medication runs, help with household chores or phone calls to let them know someone cares.

“Connecting with family and friends is important, but it is equally or more important to have meaningful interactions,” Smith said. “Try to understand the situations and circumstances of others, attempt to recognize their needs, and see what you can do to make older adults feel supported and valued. Be welcoming, ask questions and listen.”

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