Loneliness in Older Adults: A Public Health Crisis
Loneliness, a very common emotion, can come and go throughout our lives, but it is recognized as a health concern as well. The onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home orders and visitation restrictions at long-term care facilities dramatically increased the prevalence of loneliness among our senior citizens.
“Even before the pandemic, loneliness and social isolation have been considered health risks for older adults, especially those in rural areas and long-term care facilities. Isolation and loneliness are associated with a 50% increased risk of developing dementia, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a nearly fourfold increased death among heart failure patients,” said gerontologist Anne Asman, MS, Director of Advancement and Outreach with the University of Utah’s Department of Psychiatry, during an AFA Educating America Tour virtual conference. “COVID-19 has exacerbated the risk to a public health crisis. Currently, 43% of Americans ages 60 and over report feeling lonely.”
Asman believes that symptom awareness is needed to combat this crisis. Families and professional caregivers need to be aware of loneliness symptoms that may include depression, anxiety, behavioral and physical changes, onset of new memory issues, weight gain/loss, insomnia or excessive sleeping.
We also need to accept and understand that not all older adults embrace technology. Training seniors (or their families and care staff) how to use platforms like FaceTime, Zoom, and social media is necessary to bridge the current social divide. Ideally, training should be in person, but in the current environment, the phone can be used to walk someone through the connection process step by step and answer questions, rather than simply sending them an email list or a tutorial video. Seniors also need to have the physical tools to utilize these platforms, such as a laptop/tablet/smartphone, data networks, and internet service.
Asman noted, “They can adapt in many instances if there is someone there, even on the phone, to help and tutor them. Once they’re in, they love it.”
Connecting seniors with online activities, such as virtual tours, music performances, and activity programming, is a helpful way for seniors to stay connected. A variety of places and organizations offer these services now, including AFA, which provides daily activity programming on its Facebook page (visit www.alzfdn.org/events to view the schedule).
“If we can get seniors trained and online to take advantage of these opportunities, they probably won’t be lonely for very long. Let’s get them connected!” Asman said.
This article originally appeared in Alzheimer’s TODAY, Volume 15, Number 4, published by AFA. View the entire issue here.