COVID-19 and Social Isolation

COVID-19: When Social Distancing Leads to Social Isolation

Surviving Loneliness in the Wake of COVID-19

Our country has taken drastic but necessary measures to protect our citizens from COVID-19. This has left many people dealing with unfamiliar feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Sadly, our senior population—who combat these feelings anyway—is suffering the most. As a population at high risk for the virus, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country have banned visitors. Senior centers and adult day cares have closed. Public libraries, churches and other support centers for seniors are shut down.

The tragic irony is that the necessary steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are exacerbating social isolation, which can have devastating health effects on our seniors. Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served as our Surgeon General from 2014 – 2017, says loneliness is an epidemic, and it’s as devastating to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day (http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2018/01/24/put-down-your-phone).

Dr. Murthy says rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s, despite our society being more technologically connected than ever before. Loneliness is also affecting teenagers, who hide in their bedrooms talking with friends on devices instead of in-person; employees who feel disconnected from their co-workers; and any one at any age that feels alone, left out or isolated.

In May of 2018, Cigna released a national survey on loneliness in the United States. The survey of more than 20,000 American adults, entitled the U.S. Loneliness Index, uncovered the following findings: (https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/):

  • Almost half reported feeling lonely
  • One in four Americans said they rarely felt understood
  • One in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to other people
  • Two in five people sometimes or always feel their relationships are not meaningful
  • Only 18 percent believe there are people with whom they can talk to
  • Generation Z, adults ages 18-22, is the loneliness generation

Psychology Today cites the impact loneliness can have on both our mental and physical health: (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-mentality/201807/what-you-need-know-about-the-loneliness-epidemic)

  • It’s associated with cardiovascular problems and premature death
  • It reduces quality sleep
  • It reduces reasoning and creativity
  • If affects workplace productivity and job satisfaction
  • It correlates with anxiety, depression and suicide
  • It is associated with poor coping mechanisms such as compulsive technology use, smoking and self-harm

Why does loneliness affect us this way? Dr. Murthy says its because humans have evolved to be social beings, and not having real connections with others can cause stress. Stress leads to higher inflammation, which leads to disease. He compares the reduction in life span to smoking and obesity, which health care professionals have invested much effort and resources to combat. He says the same amount of effort and resources have not been put into fighting loneliness.

So what can you do to help your loved one during this time of social distancing? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use technology. Being able to see each other’s faces through FaceTime, Skype or Zoom is the next best thing to connecting in person.
  • Schedule regular phone calls. Get into a routine of calling your loved one daily or weekly.
  • Send a hand-written note. Even better if you can include pictures, a small gift or something that reminds them of you.
  • Read a book together. Then you can talk about it during your phone or video conversations.

While what we’re facing seems dire now, it’s important to remember that this is temporary. Once the restrictions are lifted and services resume, you can go back to some of the former ways for breaking the loneliness epidemic:

  1. Spend quality time with people you care about. Make up for lost time. Dr. Murthy says even spending five minutes with someone you love and trust is important, and be sure it is distraction-free. That means putting down your device, resisting the urge to scroll on your phone and being fully present. (http://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2018/01/24/put-down-your-phone)
  1. Get involved with a cause you believe in. Doing something constructive to help others will make you feel more connected with those around you. Join a group or volunteer for an activity you are passionate about.
  1. Consider a roommate. Cigna’s Loneliness Index showed that those living with others are less likely to be lonely. Having a roommate can offset expenses, household chores/upkeep and also provide company. Choose a roommate you know or someone you have something in common with.
  1. Develop healthy habits. Eat right, sleep well, exercise and stay involved. Attend group exercise classes or a walking club in your area.
  1. Nurture your relationships. Schedule a time each day to catch up with a friend. Be proactive, and invite someone to lunch, coffee or to join you on a walk on a nice day.
  1. Adopt a pet. If you like animals, consider adding a pet to your life. A study conducted by the University of Rochester Medical Center found that pet ownership could help improve feelings of social connectedness and decrease isolation in older patients. http://www.pethealthnetwork.com/news-blogs/a-vets-life/pets-help-cure-loneliness-seniors
  1. Be a Companion-Care Volunteer. Many hospitals recruit and train companion-care volunteers who talk, play games, listen and provide companionship to patients in hospitals and older adults living at home. If you’re feeling lonely yourself, helping someone else who feels the same is a win-win.

It’s important to stay safe and healthy as we manage through this crisis. Please be sure to talk with your loved one if you think he or she might be suffering from isolation or loneliness.

For more information about Guided Patient Services and how we may be of service during these unprecedented times, please feel free to contact us, 614-981-5951.

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