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Loneliness: a parallel pandemic for older adults

Mental Health | Aging Well | April 21, 2021
Lonely woman wearing a mask looks out window
COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone's mental health--especially older individuals. Here are tips and resources for coping.

“Stay home!  Avoid social gatherings!” This advice saves lives in the time of COVID-19.  But more and more, we see the cost of our isolation.

According to Carolyn Hartman, MD, a psychiatrist with PeaceHealth in Eugene, "My behavioral health colleagues agree that mental health issues were surging before the pandemic, and continue to affect all age groups. The pandemic has added new stresses for patients and systems that were already overwhelmed. The toll on our older patients is especially troubling, and often below the radar."

Population at greatest risk

The population of people age 65 and older is at greatest risk for severe COVID-19. Most follow the advice to isolate. For those living in care facilities, that choice has been made for them, with strict limitations on visiting.

They are staying relatively safe, but they are missing a lot: Outings with friends, volunteer opportunities, church gatherings, and sacred family milestones and traditions. 

Close-up of hands knittingMany are despairing that their young grandchildren don’t know them anymore, or have never even met them. Words can’t describe how painful this is for our elders, says Dr. Hartman. If they do visit family, they fear for their own health.

"Not all of my older patients are suffering," she notes, "Some are content to 'nest' in place. They’ve found ways to cope — taking up new hobbies, like painting and knitting, and doubling down on favorite activities like gardening and star-gazing. They’re reading more books and watching more TV. Some are exercising more than before. But others feel lost."

Parallel pandemic of loneliness

Generally, older people are more likely to be alone, due to the loss of partners and friends. Long before COVID-19, loneliness and social isolation were identified as serious public health issues for our elders.

COVID-19 has created a parallel pandemic of loneliness.

In a national poll on aging conducted by the University of Michigan last June — three months into the pandemic — 56 percent of people aged 50 and older reported feeling socially isolated, compared with 27 percent in 2018.

Some research has found that older adults who are lonely or socially isolated are at greater risk for dementia, heart disease, stroke, depression, suicide and premature death from various causes.

Medical provider uses stethoscope to listen to woman's heartThe COVID-19 pandemic has also had a direct negative impact on the physical health of many older adults, beyond actual infection.

Medical appointments and procedures have been delayed, and there are real struggles with using online meeting platforms (e.g., Zoom) and other technology for physician and counseling visits. Some older adults are too frightened of COVID-19 to visit the Emergency Room. We know that some conditions are being missed or not adequately treated because of these barriers to care. 

Resources to stay connected

"The advice I give to my older patients is to stay connected," says Dr. Hartman. Stay in touch with family, friends and health specialists. If you need resources, make sure that your doctor’s office knows, so they can help you.

"One of our sick COVID patients was desperate because her food was running out; she was isolating and could not go out and shop. Delivery services were not accepting her subsidized payment card. Fortunately, her primary care provider has social workers who got right on the case and were able to connect her with a home delivery program."

These are a few other resources available online:

Everyone can help

Dr. Hartman notes that everyone can help to support the social and emotional needs of elders in their community as we continue to navigate this crisis.

"All of us can take time to reach out to older neighbors, friends and relatives in safe ways, to ensure they stay connected—and that they are registered to receive the vaccine, should they so choose. And any help with navigating Zoom appointments is appreciated!"Young woman delivers flowers to door of older woman

Still, as the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus lockdown passes, there’s reason for hope. Thousands of older adults are rolling up their sleeves, thrilled to be receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

"I see resilience and optimism in many of my older patients. Some of them recall historic crises from their past, like the Great Depression and World War II. They share a determination that yes, we will also get through this," she says.

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