Jun 3, 2020
By: Lynn Spichiger, Guest Columnist| The Columbus Dispatch
As the nation adjusts to social distancing measures in response to COVID–19, we are all seeking new ways to be healthy while staying safe. Worldwide, to mitigate the virus’ spread, individuals and communities have sacrificed activities that are critical for mental and physical health — socializing, exercising, visiting a gym, dining out, going to a movie theater and more.
While physical distancing is necessary to flatten the curve, it is compounding the public health issues of social isolation and loneliness, particularly in the senior population. Loneliness is a major challenge and health risk, especially for Columbus area seniors.
Even before social distancing measures were enacted, senior citizens especially experienced loneliness challenges. In a 2020 Pulse Survey conducted by Tivity Health last month, about 40% of surveyed seniors reported experiencing loneliness “some of the time” (35%) or “often” (5%) before social distancing measures were enforced.
Two weeks after social distancing was enacted, that loneliness percentage jumped to 60%, a 20-point difference. After social distancing, 16% of polled seniors reported feeling lonely “often,” which more than tripled the previous survey result, and 44% of polled seniors reported feeling lonely “some of the time.”
It is clear social distancing, while needed to help limit the virus’s spread, is exacerbating the country’s loneliness challenge for seniors.
As difficult as loneliness is socially, studies show how physically harmful it is too. A study from Brigham Young University revealed a lack of social connection carries the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. The same study also found loneliness and social isolation to be two times as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.
The good news is loneliness’s antidote does not require costly drug trials, testing and development. As awareness of this issue grows, there are more community-based solutions. And, as the social distancing guidance continues for most of the country, there are virtual options that can help seniors stay connected.
As part of this effort, SilverSneakers, a provider of nutrition, fitness and social engagement solutions, unveiled a new free Facebook Live video series immediately after social distancing orders took effect across the U.S. Since then, the videos received over 1 million views. SilverSneakers has also expanded its OnDemand exercise video library comprising over 200 workouts along with nutrition, stress management and educational materials. OnDemand video engagement has skyrocketed year-over-year: Users in Columbus increased by 893% from April 2019 to April 2020.
SilverSneakers also partners with a social community network called Stitch, which connects seniors who collectively seek social connections with like-minded seniors. Stitch offers guided meditations, free online resources for finding new hobbies while at home and a social hour where seniors can connect, relax and have candid conversations about managing stress, anxiety and general isolation challenges experienced in this time.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, seniors can still stay safe and connected – loneliness does not have to become an unfortunate and accepted reality.
A physical and virtual community can help. There are easy solutions that do not require financial budgets or scientific research. All it takes is the initiative, a connected community and support of passionate individuals to help one another in times of need.
Community-based programs can improve lives and create healthier communities. It is time we all make a collective effort to help those afflicted by the pandemic and the inherent loneliness associated with social distancing.