Seniors and COVID-Social Isolation Of Elderly
When dining rooms reopened at senior living communities operated by Laurence Gerber, residents were hesitant to meet in groups again. After all, the seniors had been in social isolation since the COVID-19 outbreak began in early 2020.
Seniors were the hardest hit during the pandemic and health officials advised them to shelter in place to reduce their risk of exposure to the coronavirus disease. As a way to keep residents safe, senior living communities banned family members, friends, and non-essential workers from visiting, leaving residents feeling even more isolated.
Gerber, who operates over a dozen senior living communities in the Northeast, said that older adults had already been struggling with social isolation and loneliness. But, keeping seniors isolated during the pandemic—even for safety’s sake—brought on more problems.
“Loneliness is not only sad, but it impacts our physical and mental health, aging us more quickly, doubling the rate of dementia, and increasing the chances of stroke and heart attack,” Gerber said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) concluded that loneliness and isolation are public health risks. The federal health agency based its findings on studies of people 50 years old and older that showed:
- Social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia.
- 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, 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization, and 57 percent increased risk of emergency department visits.
Although people of all ages can be affected by a lack of social contacts, seniors are more likely to be affected by social isolation and loneliness because many live alone, have lost family and friends, have a chronic illness, and have hearing loss.
Seniors Show Resilience During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Some seniors were determined to overcome social isolation and loneliness while sheltering in place during the pandemic.
At least half of the 1,284 seniors participating in a COVID-19 study said they continued in-person contact with family and friends not living with them. When in-person visits were no longer feasible, 42 percent said they made video calls, 37 percent kept in touch via messaging, while 32 percent made phone calls.
The COVID-19 study was conducted by NORC, a social research organization at the University of Chicago. The survey is part of NORC’s National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, a longer-term study that tracks the physical and emotional well-being of older Americans over time. COVID-19 study participants were between the ages of 55 and 99.
Louise Hawkley, the principal research scientist at NORC and the study’s lead researcher, said the responses form a portrait of a “demographic that crosses generations” but can persevere under challenging times.
“This isn’t their first show,” Hawkley said. “They’ve been through things already. They know how to handle stress. This is something we can learn from them—that there is survival.”
Although many respondents showed “some signs of resilience,” general happiness has declined compared to 2015-2016, the last time data was collected from the same respondents participating in the long-term project.
Five years ago, 58 percent of respondents reported that they were very or extremely happy. Now, 28 percent reported feeling that way.
Also, 43 percent reported feeling more depressed now compared to 27 percent five years ago. In addition, 26 percent of people surveyed five years ago felt isolated at least sometimes while 44 percent now feel isolated at least sometimes.
Hawkley said researchers also want to collect physical data from participants as soon as the pandemic ebbs.
“We’re learning painfully how real a risk social isolation is to our mental health,” Hawkley said. “And, I think we need to learn how it affects physical health.”
Studies: Social Isolation Can Lead To Mental Disorders
Researchers are already investigating how enforced and prolonged social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the coronavirus disease itself—impacts the cognitive functions of older adults with or without dementia.
Recent literature shows that seniors 60 years old and over who experienced prolonged social isolation due to a severe coronavirus infection developed a variety of neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, encephalitis, high levels of stress, and delirium (sudden mental confusion that can cause changes in behavior).
Besides being a symptom of prolonged isolation, delirium was also a symptom of coronavirus disease in older adults. One study focused on a 73-year-old man who was admitted to the hospital with delirium. Because he had been traveling just as COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, the man was given a COVID-19 test, and the test came back positive. Although he began experiencing a high fever and mild upper respiratory symptoms, he recovered from the disease.
There were also concerns over people living with dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease, facing even more physical and mental complications due to social isolation. Agitation, apathy, depression, irritability, and delirium were most commonly detected in people with dementia.
Even when the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, social isolation and loneliness will remain an important issue because of the growing number of aging Americans, said Gerber, who founded Epoch Senior Living in 1997 to help seniors stay connected to their family, communities, and each other.
For now, the Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, and the easing of COVID-19 restrictions have given some fully vaccinated older adults the courage to socialize once again.
Gerber said he cannot “fully measure” the impact social isolation has had on older adults, but he has seen “decided improvement in the spirits of residents.”
“When we first reopened our community dining rooms, some of our residents were reluctant to return, but once they did, they came night after night, cheered by the ability to once again spend time with their friends.”