The pandemic can be hard for older adults to see any end to the need for social isolation and the loneliness that can come with it. For almost a year now, they have been following public health advice to reduce their risk of exposure. Knowingly the infection can be a life-threatening complication. However, staying at home has also meant staying distant from family and friends. Unintentionally, the safety guidelines have created new health risks by leaving many older adults even more socially isolated and inactive than before. Public health officials need to look closely at this potential risk and identify strategies to minimize the unintended consequences.
How Social Isolation Can Harm Human Health
Having few social connections and feeling isolated have been associated with certain health conditions. Social isolation is now viewed as a risk factor for premature death, similar to physical inactivity or obesity and cigarette smoking.
Social distancing was never meant to stop social connections, but many family members of older adults are staying away to avoid exposing their loved ones to the virus. While that protects older adults from some health risks, limited physical communications decrease the feelings of connectedness with others. It can also worsen other health risks.
Without meaningful social interactions, older adults’ cognitive functioning can decline. As the days of isolation wear on, older adults are especially susceptible to depression and anxiety. Remaining at home also makes it harder to engage in healthy lifestyles. Without exercise, muscles can weaken, leaving older adults more prone to falling. Inactivity can also lead to weight gain. Access to healthy food is also needed for staying healthy and for preventing and managing chronic conditions.
What Can Older Adults Do?
There are several opportunities for older adults to engage in a variety of meaningful ways within their homes or communities. It will help them stay connected with helpful resources, services, and programs.
Older adults can also take steps on their own to stay active and engaged:
- Stay physically active: Find exercises that can be done at home. Various virtual and online physical activity and health promotion programs are available, which can remotely foster engagement and connection to others.
- Plan your day: Keep up with daily routines like being engaged with small activities, getting out of bed, and getting dressed. Planning time for calls with friends, reading, cooking, or gardening can give meaning to the days.
- Think of others: Regularly reach out to others who may need to hear a friendly voice on the phone.
- Leave your home wisely: New guidelines emphasize what older adults can do to stay safe when leaving home. Wear face covering or face mask and have a hand sanitizer. Also, encourage others to wear face coverings when out in public and avoid close contact with others who are not wearing face masks.
- Accept help from others: Several individuals are working hard to keep seniors socially connected. Stay open to accepting the kindness and support from family members and friends.