lonely elderly woman in nursing home

Combatting loneliness and isolation in the age of social distancing

By Mary Carder, Integrated Marketing Specialist on July 2, 2020

Help mitigate the effects of loneliness in elderly patients with these tips

Even before 2020, older adults in the U.S. were facing a hidden epidemic. Social isolation, being objectively distanced from others, and loneliness, feeling distant from others, are prevalent among the elderly. One-fourth of seniors were considered socially isolated, while over 40% reported feeling lonely, according to the New York Times.

How isolation and loneliness affects the health and well-being of seniors has only recently been studied, but the results are concerning. The American Psychology Association (APA) links these conditions to higher risks of cardiovascular disease, dementia and depression, stating that social isolation has a mortality risk on "par with such risk factors as smoking, obesity and lack of physical activity.”


How can healthcare organizations recognize patients at risk of isolation and loneliness?

The first step to addressing any health concern is to identify a patient’s risk. Older patients who live alone, have mobility issues or sensory loss are especially vulnerable. Hearing loss or vision decline can make older adults uncomfortable with social situations, as it is difficult to follow along with conversations or to identify speakers, while those who require a cane or walker, or depend on a wheelchair, may wish to stay home rather than travel with accommodations.

NursingTimes.net cites seniors who are “recently bereaved, those with lower income and those with poorer health” are also at a greater risk of isolation and loneliness.

The APA encourages healthcare providers to “use validated tools to assess whether older patients are experiencing isolation or loneliness.” Currently, there are at least six such assessment tools that have been primarily used for research purposes, but are starting to see more use from healthcare professionals in day-to-day care.


What can home healthcare agencies do to reduce isolation and loneliness in patients?


Train staff to listen

In addition to giving providers the tools to evaluate loneliness and isolation, encourage your team to actively listen to patients. This goes beyond asking patients how they are feeling; it requires the caregiver to be engaged by asking follow up questions. “Saying ‘tell me more,’ is a gift,” says Dr. Tina Tessina, speaking with Aging Care.


Encourage family to be more active in reaching out

As with every care plan, family is an important resource when it comes to mitigating loneliness. Even though physical visitations may be limited during this time, there are other ways patients’ families can help. Speak to family members about increasing their frequency of phone calls or video chats. Often, family members have trouble communicating to elderly loved ones via these means, as it may be hard to know how to begin a conversation. Let the family know that your caregivers are happy to help facilitate these conversations, or offer prompts to family members, such as “What’s a skill you’d love to learn from this person?” or “Tell me about the time you . . .”


Partner with community outreach programs

You may be familiar with programs that help address the needs of elderly community members such as transportation, housing support, meals, etc. But did you know that in many areas there are also organizations that provide seniors with the chance to socialize with volunteers? Several continue to serve, choosing to communicate with participants through phone calls rather than in-person visits.

Partnering with a community outreach program can be a great solution as it allows your caregivers to continue focusing on the health and well-being of your patients while ensuring that their social needs are also being met. Look for programs that can easily be, or have been, adapted to fit your visitation policy.


Offer virtual activity sessions

Activities are a great way to enable conversation and create connections. Even though in-person activities have been cut short, there is a wellspring of classes and entertainment available for streaming. Offer patients the option of watching concerts or taking an exercise class online. There are even chatbots and virtual reality programs designed to help seniors connect with family members.


In our effort to protect our seniors during this time, we must also recognize that well-being is more than physical health; it encompasses emotional and mental health as well. Helping to mitigate loneliness and social isolation is vital to providing the best care possible for patients.

What efforts has your organization made to help combat loneliness? Let us know in the comments below!

Mary Carder, Integrated Marketing Specialist


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