Social Isolation: Mitigating the Dangers
Before the COVID-19 pandemic made “social isolation” a buzz word and a necessity in many parts of the country, healthcare experts recognized it as a high-risk factor for premature death, especially among the elderly. National studies have indicated that nearly a quarter of older Americans are socially isolated and about one-third of middle-aged and older adults experience loneliness. Because of this, they face a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
Self-isolation has now become a hidden health risk of the COVID-19 safety guidelines. Those over 65 are advised to avoid face-to-face contact, even with children and grandchildren. They can’t visit the places or people that kept them physically active and mentally engaged. Many people also find themselves alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation. What are the risks, and what can we do to lessen the consequences for ourselves and our loved ones?
Risk to Physical Health
Why is social isolation a risk to physical health, regardless of the reasons for it? According to Steve Cole, Ph.D., director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the U. of CA, L.A., chronic loneliness may alter the tendency of cells in the immune system to promote inflammation, which is necessary to help our bodies heal from injury, but inflammation that lasts too long increases the risk of chronic diseases.
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” Dr. Cole said. “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.” People who feel lonely may also have trouble fighting off viruses, which makes them more vulnerable to some infectious diseases, Dr. Cole added.
How Behavioral Changes Can Affect Physical and Mental Health:
- Without frequent and meaningful social interactions and stimulation, older adults’ cognitive functioning can decline.
- The longer social isolation goes on, older adults become more susceptible to depression and anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts.
- Staying inside the home 24/7 makes it harder to maintain the elements of a healthy lifestyle, including physical activity and eating well.
- Without exercise, muscles weaken, making older adults more prone to falls.
- Inactivity can lead to weight gain and other health problems, including declining heart and lung capacity.
What Older Adults and Caregivers Can Do to Mitigate the Dangers of Social Isolation
A local in-home care agency, such as Dakota Home Care, or a local government aging organization can reach out to older adults and provide the help at home that is needed to avoid social isolation dangers. Even during the pandemic, many of these providers of senior care offer opportunities for older adults to socialize in a variety of meaningful ways within their homes or communities and to connect with helpful resources, care services, and programs.
Here are 10 examples of things family caregivers and in home care providers can suggest and assist with to help elderly adults feel less isolated and lonely:
- Evaluate the risk. Some people may like being alone. Social isolation and loneliness are two distinct aspects of social relationships. Take the AARP Foundation’s Connect2Affect tool to assess the risk to your loved one for being socially isolated, and refer to the local assistance directory for support services.
- Have a daily routine. Have a specific time for getting out of bed, getting dressed, meals and activities such as calls with family, reading, walking or watching a favorite TV show.
- Get 6-8 hours of sleep a night. A regular bedtime, quiet activities before bed and a safe environment can help. Sometimes elder home care services can give the help needed to insure adequate rest.
- Eat a balanced diet. Family members and adult home care agencies like Meals on Wheels can help.
- Stay physically active. Go outside, if you’re able. Find exercises that can be done at home or in the immediate neighborhood, like walking with a friend. Many virtual and online physical activity and health promotion programs are available.
- Try mindfulness. Watch videos on guided meditation and yoga. Practice gratitude. Studies suggest finding something to be grateful for every day improves mood. Help your loved one make a list.
- Get together with friends and family online or on your phone. There are apps that make face-to-face conversations easy. Send emails and texts. Participate in digital gatherings and events.
- Join a virtual support group: Connect with chapters of organizations like the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org) that can guide you and your loved one to others who may be facing challenges similar to yours.
- Accept offers of help. Remain open to accepting the kindness and support from family members, friends, health care providers and home care agencies.
- Give service to others. Regularly reaching out to others who may need to hear a friendly voice on the phone can lift both people. Do something that gives you a sense of purpose. Volunteering has many positive health benefits, and there are online opportunities for doing so.
Check out our blog based on the book, Creating Moments of Joy. If you need more time and help to create moments of joy with and for your loved one, call Dakota Home Care at (701) 663-5373 to arrange for an in-home consultation regarding help at home for a senior loved one. Our staff understands the dangers associated with social isolation and how to create moments of joy with your loved one, even if you aren’t there.