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Preventing senior loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic

Mar 24, 2020

Experts say loneliness is as serious a health risk as smoking, obesity. Pandemics make it worse

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — Last week, Oregon Governor Kate Brown announced visits would no longer be allowed to regional health facilities or nursing homes. The restrictions are meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but may amplify another serious health issue: loneliness.

“I think the impact is going to be direct and staggering,” Lines for Life Senior Services Coordinator Bill Fitzpatrick said. Lines for Life is a regional non-profit working to prevent substance abuse and suicide. Although much of society’s crisis prevention and suicide intervention is focused on young people, Fitzpatrick said “the highest rate for suicide per demographic is white men over the age of 85.”

He uses the word “epidemic” to describe the status of senior loneliness and isolation in the U.S. and most of the Western world.

“I think there’s a confluence of factors,” he said, listing loss of mobility, the onset of a chronic illness, loss of a partner, and retiring from a career as factors that could put older adults in an isolated position.

The health ramifications extend beyond the mind.

study from Brigham Young University found “current evidence indicates heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.” Fitzpatrick said it’s been well-founded in research “that smoking 15 cigarettes a day is akin in the bodily impacts of being in a protracted state of loneliness.”

A pandemic only makes this worse, because it emphasizes vulnerable people’s lack of control over their life.

“A pandemic, like the COVID-19 outbreak, is sort of the culmination of a total loss of agency for older adults,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you were already feeling lonely and isolated, you’re only going to be more so by virtue of stay-in-place orders and social distancing.”

People living in nursing homes are already likely to have fewer intimate social connections. Now only end-of-life visits are allowed for family and friends, with no indication of when residents will be able to see loved ones again.

How you can support lonely seniors

But there are ways people can help loved ones feel less isolated.

“We can make calls. We can write letters. We can engage over all of the technological means that we still have available to us,” Fitzpatrick said.

As important as making the call: Making a routine. Since seniors often struggle with lack of agency, Fitzpatrick said establishing a regular time and day for phone calls can be beneficial.

“(It’s) just one of those things that gives us a basic control over what’s going on,” he said. “So at least we can even rely on getting a call from someone that cares and we know that it’s coming.”

For people ages 55 and up who don’t have a support system, Lines for Life has a free Senior Loneliness Line. It launched in May 2018 and has been consistently growing, but Fitzpatrick said the call volume has “veritably exploded since the COVID outbreak.”

“A lot of the content that we’re hearing in the calls is focused on COVID-19,” he said. “(We) know what totalizing sense of fear something like a pandemic has for a medically frail older adult and that’s probably been the key theme that runs across all the calls is this overwhelming sense of uncertainty.”

Lines for Life can also establish regular outgoing calls to lonely adults who don’t have anyone to check up on them. Third parties like case managers, nurses, pastors, etc. can call the loneliness line at 503-200-1633 to arrange this for a senior they’re concerned about.

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