As stay-home and quarantine orders spread across the U.S. this March, so too did fears that reduced contact with friends, loved ones, and even strangers would result in a mental health crisis brought about by social isolation.
At least one major study in June indicated that those concerns largely haven’t materialized with the broader public, with an American Psychological Association-backed analysis finding no significant increase in the percentage of Americans who say they feel lonely or isolated.
However, the report doesn’t focus exclusively on seniors and notes that older adults were the only group to show increased loneliness. It further states that people with chronic conditions or people who live alone are more prone to loneliness.
Beginning in mid-March, The Senior List (www.seniorlist.com) conducted multiple surveys of American adults 65 and older, totaling more than 2,000 responses, initially to discern whether they were prepared for lengthy quarantine periods and later to find out how their interactions with others have changed and if they are feeling a stronger sense of loneliness.
The latest survey has revealed that most seniors were feeling lonelier in late July than they were in mid-March. In addition, for a small-but-worrying percentage of older adults, extreme feelings of loneliness are on the rise.
Key findings included:
About 2 in 5 seniors in July said they were lonelier since COVID-19 began, compared to just approximately 10% in the first study.
Women have consistently been more likely to report feeling lonely, and both men and women have become more likely since the first study to say they feel lonelier than they did before the pandemic. But the percentage of men saying they feel lonelier has risen more quickly than the share of women saying the same.
Daily in-person contact with non-household members plummeted between the first and second studies but bounced back in July.
Seniors’ use of video chat platforms has climbed during each survey period. More than half of seniors now report that they use video chat.
Most predictions of the impact of the pandemic on Americans’ feelings of loneliness and isolation stemmed from the need to limit contact with people outside of our households to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus from person to person.
The survey found that in-person contact plummeted during the spring but has bounced back over the summer. About 37% of seniors said they had in-person interaction with people outside their household several times per day in the beginning.
This figure fell to just under 12% in the second study, but the latest survey found that more than 22% of seniors said they were interacting in-person with non-household members many times every day. That’s an increase of 92% between the latest surveys.
Other contact-frequency rates indicate that most seniors were aggressive with their social-distancing practices in the spring but have relaxed those practices.
A Gallup poll in mid-July found that about 47% of Americans 55 and older always wear a mask when out in public, which is concerning given that seniors account for an outsized percentage of COVID-19 deaths and cases.
If there’s a silver lining in the COVID-19 crisis, it could be that seniors are becoming more tech-savvy. During the first survey period, just over 1 in 4 seniors said they were using video calls, which could include FaceTime or Zoom.
This share rose during every survey period, and today more than half of seniors say they’re using video calling.
What Can You Do to Combat Loneliness?
So what can be done to ensure that extreme loneliness and social isolation don’t take hold while we reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19?
Put it in writing: Send notes to friends and loved ones, in addition to regular contact over the phone or online. A UCLA study in 2007 found that the act of writing can heighten mindfulness and reduce stress and anxiety.
Get out (safely): Stepping outside, whether for a dog walk or stroll around the block, if it can be done safely (wear a mask if you can’t maintain social distance), can allow a worried mind to focus on nature. Seniors should be sure to wear proper sun protection when outdoors.
Make time for virtual hangouts: Spontaneous communication can lift the spirits, but the best way to ensure you’re regularly communicating with others is to put virtual hangouts on a calendar. Set days and times that work, and try to stick with the schedule as much as possible.
Give back: Science shows that helping others helps us, too. That’s because contributing to causes and helping others can stimulate the brain’s pleasure centers.
To view the complete study, visit www.theseniorlist.com/home-care/loneliness-covid.