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Getting Old Has Often Meant Loneliness. It’s About To Get Worse

Apr 1, 2020

Isolation can have serious health effects for older people.

When some of the earliest reports about the novel coronavirus first appeared, they suggested that individuals who were older than 65 appeared to be uniquely vulnerable to the worst effects, including death, from COVID-19, the disease from the virus. Four months after the first cases were reported in China, one of the first major outbreaks of the virus in the United States occurred in the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, where 81 senior citizens were infected and 35 people died over the course of about four weeks. Soon, across the country, public health officials urged strict quarantines as a way to protect the population generally and especially the most vulnerable members: those with preexisting conditions, or those who are immune-compromised, or who are over 65.

Geriatric experts are concerned, however, that staying safe from the virus could bring some serious repercussions: Social isolation and loneliness are two conditions that are also a grave threat to the health and well-being of the nation’s older people.

“[The quarantine] affects a group that has already been suffering the risks of social isolation at an even greater extent,” says George Demiris, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, who specializes in ways technology can enhance health care.“ I do think that this has a set of unintended consequences.” If left unaddressed, those consequences could be deadly.

In February, before the coronavirus upended the lives of millions of Americans, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine—a collective of scholarly institutions—teamed up with AARP, a nonprofit that advocates for senior citizens, and published a report, Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults. Researchers quantified the extent of a person’s social isolation by looking at the number of interactions they had with family members, friends, and caregivers. Loneliness was reported on a subjective scale, usually measured after a senior citizen responded to a questionnaire provided by one of the research institutions. They found that almost half of the 68.7 million Americans who are older than 60 reported feeling lonely, and as a result have an “increased likelihood of early death, dementia, heart disease and more.” Isolated senior citizens are also at heightened risk of suicide. According to Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation, those factors become compounded when seniors are also members are marginalized groups, including people of color and LGBTQ communities.

“We don’t really know what the short and long term health consequences are of an immediate and drastic change in social integration of older adults.

For some senior citizens, the effects of COVID-19 epidemic are a new variable. “We don’t really know what the short and long term health consequences are of an immediate and drastic change in social integration of older adults,” says Dr. Cynthia Melinda Boyd, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

In terms of their level of relative independence, senior citizens can be broadly divided into four general groups: those who are living on their own in homes or apartments; those who are with their families; the 1 million seniors in assisted living facilities; and another 1.3 million who live in nursing homes.

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