Results from a new national poll suggest that the pandemic has made being old and alone even more difficult: loneliness more than doubled among older US adults during the first months of the coronavirus crisis.
In June, 56% of people over the age of 50 said they sometimes or often felt isolated from others. A similar poll from 2018 found only the 27% felt that way.
And nearly half of those polled in this year said they felt more isolated than just before the pandemic began. Likewise, a third said they felt they had less companionship than before.
Social contacts suffered too. About 46% of older adults reported in June that they infrequently interacted with friends, neighbors, or family outside their household. In 2018, that figure was only 28%. “Infrequently” here means once a week or less.
These new findings come from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, which is done for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. Both the 2020 and 2018 polls on loneliness involved a national sample of more than 2,000 adults aged 50 to 80.
Technology can make being old and alone less painful
The poll points to some bright spots, too. Technology, for example, helped many people over 50 connect with others. That applied especially to the 59% who reported using social media at least once a week. It also helped the 31% who used video chat at least once a week.
And many older adults said they engaged in healthy behaviors despite the pandemic. That included 75% who said they go outdoors or interact with nature. It also included the 62% who said they got exercise several times a week. But those experiencing loneliness were less likely to engage in these healthy behaviors.
“As the pandemic continues, it will be critical to pay attention to how well we as a society support the social and emotional needs of older adults,” said John Piette, Ph.D., a professor at the U-M School of Public Health who worked with the poll team. “The intersection of loneliness and health still needs much study, but even as we gather new evidence, all of us can take time to reach out to older neighbors, friends and relatives in safe ways as they try to avoid the coronavirus.”
“The change we see in these measures in less than two years is truly remarkable,” said Preeti Malani, M.D., the U-M Medical School professor who directs the poll and has training in geriatrics and infectious diseases. “The use of technology to bridge the gap, and the importance of keeping up healthy routines like exercise, sleep, a balanced diet and getting outside, will no doubt continue to be important in the months ahead.”
How health and lifestyle interact with elderly loneliness
Malani notes that 80% of those polled in June said they were eating a healthy diet, and 81% said they got enough sleep. Those figures are almost exactly the same as in the 2018 poll.
Elder loneliness, unsurprisingly, is also linked to living alone. The poll also found that half of those who live alone, and just over half (52%) of the unemployed or disabled, said they felt a lack of companionship. This stands in marked comparison to the 39% of those who live with others, work or are retired.
Similarly, just over half of those who said their physical health was fair or poor said they lacked companionship. That also applied to two-thirds of those who said the same about their mental health. Nearly three-quarters of those who said their mental health was fair or poor said they felt isolated. Among those reporting better mental health, that figure was 55%.
The use of technology to connect appears to be a double-edged sword, with those who use social media and video chat being more likely to say they felt isolated.
The AARP is offering resources, including tips for older adults to avoid feeling isolated despite the pandemic. The AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect website is an example. It includes a tool that can help older adults assess their level of isolation. It can also connect them to resources and opportunities in their area.
“Past studies have shown that prolonged isolation has a profound negative effect on health and wellbeing — as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research for AARP. “It’s not surprising that older adults reported more loneliness since the pandemic began, particularly those who live alone. We need to continue finding ways to connect and engage with one another throughout this public health crisis.”
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