Social Isolation Series, P. 1: Identifying Triggers for Loneliness in Seniors
In this unprecedented time of concern that stems from a global health crisis, the need (and, in many cases, the mandate) to self-isolate and practice strict social distancing has taken a major toll on mental health for people in every category of age, gender, social status and geography.
We’ve all been impacted by the pandemic in one way or another, and for many, the most prominent effect has been an overwhelming feeling of loneliness.
This is especially prevalent among the aging population, who are at higher risk of experiencing dangerous complications from the disease and, in turn, are often isolated to a greater degree. Acute loneliness and isolation can have far-reaching outcomes on the quality of life for seniors—and the impacts are not restricted to mental health alone. In fact, loneliness has also been associated with harmful physical conditions and higher rates of mortality.
To help you and your family face some of the most difficult mental and emotional challenges resulting from social isolation, we’re providing an informational series on the topic. In this first installment, we invite you to gain a better understanding of the triggers that can cause an unhealthy level of loneliness for you or the senior in your life.
Disruption to Daily Routine
For lots of seniors, it’s important to maintain a regular routine around the activities in their daily lives. This provides a sense of comfort. Routines are beneficial for seniors from both a care and emotional standpoint. Having a scheduled day to accommodate recurring functions like eating, sleeping, exercising, receiving medical care and therapy, cleaning, bathing, socializing, volunteering and visiting with loved ones helps support a sense of purpose and consistency.
Unfortunately, the regulations and advisories surrounding the spread of COVID-19 have forced many of these types of routines to be majorly disrupted. Visits with medical personnel, group exercise classes, volunteer opportunities, eating with friends and family, and generally anything that involves unnecessary contact with other humans has been severely limited or cancelled altogether. This disruption to a senior’s routine can absolutely trigger feelings of loneliness and compound any mental or emotional decline he or she may be suffering from.
Therefore, it’s important to recognize this reality for you or the senior in your life and do what’s in your power to prevent social isolation from becoming a drain on overall well-being. In our next series article, we’ll provide some more detailed ways to accomplish this.
Heightened Sense of Disconnection
An abundance of research indicates that seniors, even without the existence of coronavirus challenges, are more prone to loneliness and social isolation than younger generations. Whether living alone or not, people in this particular stage of life can often feel a diminished sense of connection to the people and purposes they once lived for. Some of the best ways seniors have found to combat this kind of disconnection involve regular contact with other humans, including anyone from family, neighbors, friends and faith communities to caregivers, meal delivery persons and physical therapists or other medical professionals.
With newly placed restrictions on this type of contact and interaction, however, it can be easy for seniors to feel more isolated and alone than ever before. Most of the ongoing human contact and support that a senior may have become accustomed to experiencing has been suddenly severed or drastically limited. Even those residing in senior living communities that promote an abundance of social interaction with residents and staff have had to stay as isolated as possible to avoid the dangerous impacts of contracting the virus.
Again, this makes efforts to prevent overwhelming isolation and emotional distress in seniors highly critical during this time. With plentiful opportunities for virtual connection and other ways to combat loneliness, there are steps you can take to address mounting feelings of disconnection.
Worry Over Increased Risk
“When it comes to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, older people are especially vulnerable to severe illness,” indicates a recent John Hopkins Medicine article. “Research is showing that adults 60 and older, especially those with preexisting medical conditions, especially heart disease, lung disease, diabetes or cancer, are more likely to have severe—even deadly—coronavirus infection than other age groups.”
It’s certainly true that as we age, we all become more susceptible to experiencing medical conditions and deteriorated physical health. But under normal circumstances, many of these issues can be managed appropriately with limited impact on ordinary life. With the permeation of COVID-19 throughout communities around the globe, the aging population (especially those with any type of chronic condition) has been identified as the most at-risk group of people. This knowledge can undoubtedly increase fear, affect a senior’s ability to cope with stress and greatly exacerbate their feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Being aware of this reaction and understanding how to address it head on will be vital to keeping severe loneliness at bay over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Experience of Loss
For older adults, the loss of a spouse, friend or loved one who has passed becomes a more frequent experience. There are also other types of losses, including physical capability, self-reliance, financial independence, etc. Managing this kind of grief can be a major uphill battle under ordinary conditions, but in the midst of our current health crisis, it can feel downright impossible.
Simply being with a loved one in their final hours may not even be a possibility. And holding memorial services is no longer an option in many places. What’s more, there’s a very real threat for seniors to experience even greater loss over the course of this pandemic, as an overwhelming majority of virus-related deaths is occurring among this population.
Additionally, working through the sadness that often accompanies loss of independence in any form can breed a deep sense of loneliness without the advantage of typical coping methods like spending time with family and engaging in social activities. Overall, the experience of loss can be a huge trigger for loneliness in seniors.
Turning Awareness into Action
Now that you have a better understanding of the specific triggers that can lead to immense feelings of isolation and loneliness for seniors, particularly during this unusual time of widespread fear and illness, you’re better equipped to identify these triggers and do what’s in your power to mitigate them for yourself or your aging loved one.
Stay tuned for our next installment of the Social Isolation Series, which offers specific actions you can take in support of prevention and treatment.
For information about what the team at United Methodist Homes Assisted and Independent Living is doing to address concerns related to COVID-19, please check out our most recent update and guidance or call us directly at (877) 929-5321.
About Marissa Salvesen
My journey into the world of senior living began when I started working for United Methodist Homes in 2010. Starting as an Activities Director at one of our-winning assisted and independent living communities and then transitioning to Marketing and Promotions Manager for UMH, I now work as the Manager of Mission Development, fostering the Mission and Values of our organization. I love sharing stories about the many ways we build meaningful relationships and enrich the lives of those we serve, and am proud to be part of building UMH’s 140-year legacy of caring. Wondering what makes our communities such special places to live and work? Connect with me and find out!
Our Blog is a 2016 Platinum Generations Award Winner! The Generations Award is an annual international competition for excellence in senior marketing recognizing professionals who have communicated to the 50+ Mature Markets.