The Pandemic Has Made Social Isolation in Older Adults Worse. How Can We Address It?

Loneliness and social isolation were already widespread in older adults before COVID-19. We look at the reasons—and what we can do about it.

Older woman looks out of window

Retirement! Time to reconnect with family and friends, travel to destinations we’ve long dreamed of, and do that volunteer work we’ve been meaning to do, all while maybe sleeping in a little; it’s exciting to imagine.

What we do not envision is social isolation and loneliness.

Unfortunately, according to a recent study, nearly one in four adults aged 65 and older is considered to be socially isolated. During the past year, as many people and especially older adults avoided social interactions to keep themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, they are now especially at risk.

We sat down with Katie Perumbeti, Lifelong Communities Coordinator with ARC’s Aging & Independence Services group, to find out what’s causing this epidemic of loneliness among older adults — and what we can do to fight it.

What exactly is “social isolation,” and how is it different from loneliness?

KP: While social isolation means actually being alone or having few social contacts, loneliness is a subjective feeling—it’s often defined as the discrepancy between one’s actual and desired level of connection. Someone may enjoy being physically alone to a degree, but when they are alone more than they want to be or feel like they don’t have enough quality relationships, loneliness can creep in.

Many of us think of retirement as a time of adventure and fun. What causes social isolation and loneliness to creep in?

KP: For a lot of people, retirement is a really enriching time — and it should be. But as we navigate the life changes that often come with aging, like devoting time to care for an ill spouse, moving into a new community where we don’t know anyone, or losing the ability to drive, social isolation can quickly become a real problem. Societal barriers such as ageism and lack of opportunities for older adults to interact with others and contribute to their communities can exacerbate social isolation and feelings of loneliness.

Beyond being really unpleasant on a personal level, social isolation and loneliness can lead to health issues for people, too, right?

KP: That’s right. Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, stroke, cognitive decline, and dementia. One stat we often talk about is the fact that loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

And these health issues due to loneliness — that are totally preventable — lead to more hospitalizations and medical visits, which put a strain on our medical system’s resources. ARC just released a policy brief about all this, and one thing that we learned in doing the research is that each month, Medicare spends approximately $134 more for each socially isolated older adult than it would were the person socially connected.

So, it’s a health issue. But it’s more than that, too, right? And it’s not just healthcare-oriented solutions we should consider.

KP: Oh, yeah. It’s a matter of looking at how to connect people on many levels. From a planning perspective, do we have safe and connected neighborhoods, with sidewalks and pedestrian access to places where people gather socially? Do we have accessible and affordable transportation options? And as COVID-19 has highlighted, do we have ways for people to connect virtually, whether that’s over the phone or the internet? Are there safe outdoor spaces to visit with others?

All neighborhood features that people like at any age, by the way.

KP: Absolutely. This isn’t just for older people. It’s for all of us — and we all hope to live long lives, right? So, this is essentially planning for our own future.

People can also help by reaching out to individuals that may be socially isolated or feeling lonely through things like ARC’s volunteer phone outreach program One2One, where people call older adults and people living with disabilities a couple times a week and develop these great relationships. But programs like that, or encouraging isolated individuals to participate in group classes or volunteer programs like AmeriCorps Seniors RSVP, can all make a difference.

What can be done at the policy level?

Lawmakers should consider policies that enable people to participate fully in their communities, maintain existing relationships, and create new relationships – both in-person and virtually. That could be policies that increase high-speed internet access, like reduced broadband rates and free public Wi-Fi in places people gather.

Also just supporting community planning — whether it’s through zoning, use of public land, or funding projects that help residents of all ages to engage with others. I’m talking about things like creating parks or other gathering places and ensuring there are sidewalks, lighting, benches, and safe crossings that connect homes and services.

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What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.