During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been told to shelter in place. For many of us, sheltering in place has been a way of life before COVID-19.
The Health Resources & Services Administration states that two in five Americans report they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a quarter of the U.S. population (28 percent) of older adults live alone.
World Health Organization reports, social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem worsens as we get older.
Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes. A risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Social isolation was associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia.
Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.
Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, a 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization, and a 57 percent increased risk of emergency department visits.
The late Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied the effects of loneliness for two decades before his passing in 2018. After suffering a near-fatal car crash and having what seemed to be a transformative revelation, he concluded that love and social connections are what really matters in life. He equated loneliness with a type of hunger, noting that establishing social connections is essential for human survival. He also believed that chronic loneliness can increase the incidence of early death.
One would think that knowing if we are being affected emotionally or physically from loneliness would be easy for us, loved ones, and our health care providers to recognize; however, this is not always the case. Like chronic depression or pain, over time we start thinking and believing it’s just a normal way of life.
In a recent article AARP shares, Kerstin Gerst Emerson, a clinical assistant professor at the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia in Athens.
“You can’t give the patient a blood test or an MRI.” Instead, diagnosis depends on asking questions. Living alone isn’t always the problem, although it can be. More important, say, experts, is a subjective feeling of social separation.
“We’re all lonely from time to time, but the problems come when someone is chronically lonely, day in and day out,” says Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and genomics researcher at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Tips to help with social isolation and loneliness
• Take time to talk to family and friends: phone, virtual platform, email, and social media.
• Keep up a healthy lifestyle: eat a balanced diet, exercise and get quality sleep.
• Take up a new hobby you always wanted to try.
• Get as much sunlight, fresh air and nature as you can.
• Practice relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness.
• If new and social media makes you feel fearful or anxious, unplug.
• If you are socially distancing and feeling lonely because of Covid-19, remind yourself this is a temporary period of isolation.
• Confide in family and friends how you are feeling.
• Take part in an in-person support or virtual support group.
If you suspect you are suffering from chronic loneliness, talk with your provider or mental health professional. They can refer you to a mental health professional to see if individual or group therapy in-person or via teletherapy is right for you. Just like a medical condition, it will only get worse if untreated.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately. If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).
Madison County Health Care System’s Senior Life Solutions is an intensive outpatient group therapy program designed to meet the unique needs of older adults suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression often related to aging. For more information, or if you know an older loved one experiencing isolation or loneliness and is in need of help, contact us at 515-462-5120.