Story at a glance

  • Loneliness affects both mental and physical health.
  • “These risks are often exacerbated among older adults who due to impaired mobility and declining economic resources may be especially prone to loneliness,” says an expert.
  • Check in with one another, especially older adults who live alone.

In the U.S., many people have been under stay-at-home orders for about a month. This new reality has sparked different kinds of socialization over the internet. People are getting in touch with friends they haven’t spoken to in years. But a major concern is that long periods of isolation and quarantine may disproportionately affect the health of older adults who may not have many social contacts. If they are experiencing decreased social interaction, that could lead to loneliness. And that could be detrimental for their health.

The health effects of loneliness

Chronic or extended periods of loneliness may affect anyone’s health. “We know from research that acute feelings of loneliness, unmitigated, could lead to chronic or long-term loneliness which can lead to health problems down the road,” says Anthony Ong of Cornell University in an email to Changing America. A study published in 2010 found that both situational and chronic loneliness were risk factors for all causes of mortality.

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Loneliness affects your moods and mental health, but it can also affect your body. “Research has linked feelings of loneliness to higher risks for a number of physical and mental health problems, including high blood pressure, obesity and depression,” says Ong. “These risks are often exacerbated among older adults who due to impaired mobility and declining economic resources may be especially prone to loneliness.”


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Older adults may be more vulnerable

Author Lydia Denworth covers this topic extensively in her recent book “Friendship.” The research she covers in the book suggests that friendships are less important during middle age because of family and careers, but become much more important later in life when family and careers may fall away.

The public health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a light on another, says Denworth. Older people are more vulnerable to COVID-19 but they are also more vulnerable to loneliness.

“It is a real concern that older adults, especially who live alone, are at more risk,” says Denworth. While during normal times they could go out to senior centers or interact with people in their community, staying home because of the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated most of those opportunities.

Turning to technology

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The solutions for loneliness are simple but not always easy. “Research shows that feelings of loneliness can be eased when people engage in meaningful activities with others,” Ong tells Changing America. “This is challenging in the current context of recommendations for social distancing; however, innovations in technology may provide opportunities for older adults to engage in meaningful social connection with others virtually.”

For older adults, this often means wrestling with their phone or other electronic devices that they may not have set up for constant virtual contact.


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“It's hard to imagine what this would be like if we didn't have the technology we have and social media,” says Denworth. But because older people often have difficulties using technology, that could be a barrier in these times. Denworth mentions GrandPad, a tablet designed for seniors, which is meant to be more user-friendly for older people.

If you have an older adult in your life, find out what they need help with. And try not to let yourself get frustrated if they are hesitant to accept assistance. They may feel guilt, which could keep them from continuing to accept help or use the technology.

But there may be many older people who are not able to interact with people virtually. “Someone who lives alone, who's on a very limited budget...either doesn't know how to or can't afford a good computer or an internet connection,” says Denworth. “A good internet connection is going to really be limited in how much they can interact right now.”

We may be isolated but not alone

What many people are learning during their home isolation is that it’s really easy to connect to friends because of technology. This can ease the feelings of loneliness even if we can’t physically be with them. “One of the big takeaways from research on loneliness is that being alone (physical isolation) is not the same as feeling alone (loneliness),” says Ong. “You can feel lonely in a crowd. Similarly, you can enjoy the solitude of being alone.”

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For those who feel alone, there’s hope to be gained from this experience. Researchers are already jumping on new research studies during this pandemic. They’re following people and observing how technology is playing a role.

Denworth and Ong both suggest that we check in with one another, especially older adults. Ong adds, “To lessen feelings of loneliness all you need is one person who really gets and understands you.”

For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Apr 15, 2020