Because of the pandemic, we’ve all experienced social isolation — the loss of close contact with family and friends. We’re feeling that isolation even more acutely during the winter season, when we typically get together with those we love.
For older adults who have had to take extra isolating precautions against exposure to COVID-19, these losses have been magnified, and in many cases, they’re layered on top of longstanding disconnections.
With 36% of adults in America age 50 or older and 17% over 65, it’s reasonable to assume that social isolation is widespread. A recent survey of U.S. adults conducted by AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation confirms it: The study found that two-thirds of respondents are experiencing social isolation, with nearly that number feeling more anxiety because of the pandemic. The consequences are disturbing.
“Social isolation has reached epidemic proportions during the pandemic,” says AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson. “Decades of research on prolonged social isolation and loneliness show that it’s worse for health than obesity, and as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
The survey also reveals that most isolated older adults are not asking others for assistance, perhaps because they don’t realize help is available.
If you or a loved one are experiencing social isolation, whether it’s COVID-related or a daily reality that was already present, here are some important facts to know based on the AARP Foundation/United Health Foundation survey — followed by tips that can help increase social connection.
Few have sought help about their feelings. Of those reporting social isolation during the pandemic, 50% say it has affected their motivation, 41% report greater anxiety and 37% have experienced feelings of depression. Yet only 11% have turned to medical professionals to help address these concerns, and nearly a third haven’t sought help from anyone.
Women are more susceptible than men. Women 50 and older are more than twice as likely as men to feel overwhelmed as a result of the pandemic. Forty-six percent of women in that age bracket have felt anxious (compared to 36% of men), and 50% have felt stressed (compared to 40% of men). Twenty-nine percent of women 50 or older have gone for as long as three months without interacting with others outside their homes or workplaces.
Low-income adults have seen greater impact. People 50 and older in income brackets of lower than $40,000 a year have been more affected by isolation than those with incomes of $75,000 or more. Forty percent of lower-income respondents report having trouble accessing various resources, 20% point to problems getting food and about 20% have struggled to secure health care services.
Steps you can take. AARP Foundation launched Connect2Affect to address the growing problem of social isolation. Connect2Affect offers helpful tools and resources. Here are some steps you can take to help yourself or a loved one combat social isolation:
- More medical professionals are now attuned to the physical and emotional toll social isolation can take. Discuss with your primary care doctor how you’re feeling and that it might be related to social isolation.
- Connect2Affect lists health care, food assistance and other community services available to seniors.
- Request a supportive phone call from one of AARP’s Friendly Voice volunteers. This program is available free of charge, and you can arrange for ongoing check-in calls.
- If the holidays or winter season have made social isolation worse for you or a family member, take the 3-minute test on the Connect2Affect site to assess your level of connectedness, then check out some practical (and safe) tips for interacting with others.
- AARP Foundation offers free chatbots to the general public and in some senior living communities that can provide the comfort of daily conversation.
Social isolation can affect anyone. Find more helpful information at AARPFoundation.org.