Combating Senior Isolation in Real-Time

May 19, 2020

The Baby Boomer generation is aging. By 2030, all of them will be age 65 or older. Baby boomers who aren’t taking care of their parents or other family members are keenly aware of their own aging.  By 2034, the number of senior citizens over 65 will outnumber children under the age of 18 in the U.S. for the first time ever. And seniors have concerns particular to old age, such as retirement, health problems, and social security. However, there is one concern that has been somewhat ignored until COVID-19 made the issue far more serious, and that is senior isolation.

Isolation & Impact on Health

Isolation and its resulting challenges tend to happen in stages. Older family and friends begin to pass away at an increasing rate. Younger family and friends relocate to another city or state. On the flip side, seniors are living longer thanks to improvements in healthcare. This discrepancy can result in a lot of lonely days. A recent study found that 52 percent of older adults age 65+ experience feelings of loneliness a few times a year, and 21 percent reported feeling lonely every day.

This is certainly a concern over social health, but it’s also much more than that. Social isolation and loneliness among older adults have been linked to serious health problems including depression, cognitive decline, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Identifying the Problem

There are ways to combat this trend. First and foremost, it must acceptable for seniors to talk about their feelings of isolation. Of those experiencing loneliness and depression, only 34 percent choose to talk to a friend about it. Being able to speak about their feelings openly should be a priority.

Family and healthcare professionals should be aware of this and look for ways to make them more approachable topics.  The AARP Public Policy Institute now encourages health professionals to screen for loneliness during routine checkups. Doctors who recognize symptoms of social isolation and loneliness in their patients can recommend physical and social activity as a first line of defense. Physical activity is something doctors are encouraging their aging patients to do anyway, so improving physical and cognitive health while also combating loneliness is a double win.

How Technology Can Help

The challenges associated with COVID-19 have made our everyday lives far more complex. While we can’t be there with our loved ones in person as before, we can however utilize technology to actively connect seniors to the world. According to Pew Research, 64 percent of those age 65 and older already use the internet – this number will keep going up. Here are some resources which are helping isolated seniors right now:

  • Video Chat – This is a powerful way to be support family and friends who are isolated. Apps like Zoom and Facebook provide a user-friendly system to talk on either a mobile phone or tablet. Seeing someone’s face and smile when you talk to them is an enormous benefit over a regular phone call.
  • Social Media – Seniors who are setup to use social media can look at photos and videos of their loved ones, see what’s happening in their community and the world, and participate in discussions that drive their interest.
  • Apps – An increasing number of devices can now be equipped with apps geared specifically toward seniors. Depending on the service, they may offer brain games, tips to stay active, a streamlined interface to the internet, and more.
  • Grocery & Transportation – For seniors who don’t drive or can’t go out, grocery delivery is now offered by a variety of big chains, including Stop & Shop, WholeFoods, and Fresh Direct. Caregivers can even place an order on the apps themselves and have the groceries shipped to their loved one. In addition, transportation services like Uber can help seniors get to their doctor appointments.
  • Telehealth – When you can’t go to the doctor’s office, remote platforms are now available to get a consultation from the comfort of home.
  • Medical Alert & Wellness – Companies like LifeStation are providing ongoing wellness checks and concierge services to proactively facilitate urgent help, whether for an emergency or injury requiring immediate need, or help with every day basic needs such as groceries, transportation, and medication.

Filling in the Gaps

There are also technology-free options to beat isolation and these should not be overlooked. Some seniors simply can’t access technology or have difficulty using it.

Alternatives which can help include everything from volunteering for charities over the phone, writing letters to loved ones, even making masks at home for essential workers. When the pandemic eventually eases, seniors can also get involved with their community through senior centers and church groups or plan outings to museums or a movie.

At the end of the day, humans are social creatures who interact to support and nurture one another. Maintaining connections to friends and family is key to combat loneliness and isolation among the elderly population. The good news is that today there are an amazing array of technology resources that can help seniors who are cut off from the others because of COVID-19 or other reasons. These tools can combine to alleviate more than just loneliness; they can actually improve health. And allowing seniors to talk openly about their struggles with isolation can open up potential other ways to help as well. For seniors seeking companionship, whether through a friend, loved one, or group, the connection gives them a sense of value and purpose that provides a sense of security and happiness. This value and purpose are vital to ensuring the senior derives enjoyment in his or her daily life activities and remains physically healthy.

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