How Social Isolation Affects Your Health and What You Can Do About It
- Social isolation and loneliness can affect your physical health in many ways. During COVID-19, it’s especially important for older adults to find ways to stay connected. Here’s how.
We all need social connections to survive and thrive. However, as we age, we tend to spend more time alone, and we may not even be consciously aware of our withdrawal from others.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it particularly difficult for everyone – particularly older adults – to stay connected with family and friends. Unfortunately, with social isolation comes a variety of health risks. The good news? There are fairly simple ways to reconnect and improve your health and well-being.
What is social isolation?
Social isolation occurs when someone has few social contacts with whom they interact regularly. Approximately one-quarter of community-dwelling Americans aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated, and that number has likely increased during the pandemic due to physical distancing.
What are the specific health risks associated with social isolation?
Social isolation is one of many social determinants of health that can affect your life.
Specifically, social isolation increases your risk for:
- Premature death
- Heart disease
Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.
Why are older adults at higher risk for social isolation?
Older adults are at higher risk for social isolation because of the changes that come with growing older. Examples include hearing, vision and memory loss; physical disability and/or the loss of family and friends.
Many of these changes are inevitable. However, there are steps you can take to feel more socially connected even as you age. Focusing on these connections can help improve your mental and physical health as well as your overall quality of life.
How do I know if I’m socially isolated?
You may be experiencing social isolation if you:
- Live alone
- Can’t leave your home
- Had a major loss or life change
- Struggle financially
- Have psychological or cognitive challenges
- Have limited social support
- Live in a rural area or unsafe neighborhood where you aren’t able to easily or safely interact with people near your home
Consider this self-assessment checklist to gauge your own personal risk.
What can I do to reduce my social isolation?
There are many ways to reduce social isolation.
- For example, you could schedule a time each day or week to connect with family and friends. These don’t necessarily need to be in-person visits.
- You could also talk by phone, video chat, social media or email – and even plan to have a meal or coffee together virtually while you connect.
Don’t be afraid to get creative. For example, consider watching a movie together with your grandchildren using an application like Watch2Gether that joins parties in two different locations. Note that Netflix, Disney, Hulu and HBO subscribers can do the same thing with Teleparty. It’s almost as good as the real thing (i.e., being in the same room at the same time), and it can provide a collective experience that will make you feel closer to others.
- Another option is to take a class and learn something new. For example, during COVID-19, your public library or community center may offer a variety of in-person courses that follow all COVID-19 safety protocols.
If you’re not comfortable with in-person classes, check out online options. Websites such as Coursera, Udemy or Edx offer many courses on a variety of topics (many of them free!) that would enable you to connect with others who have a similar desire to learn and explore new ideas.
- Another way to connect is to volunteer. There are many socially-distanced volunteer opportunities to consider: Give blood, donate time tutoring others virtually or become a pen pal with someone from a younger generation.
These are just a few ideas. A simple Google search can spark your creativity and provide additional inspiration.
How can I talk to my doctor about social isolation?
Be open, honest and direct. Remember: Your doctor is there to help you with your physical and emotional health.
Let your doctor know exactly how you feel, when it started and what type of support you might need. Once your doctor understands, they’ll be better equipped to connect you with resources.
What are some other resources that can help?
You can find more tips and resources at www.nia.nih.gov/CommitToConnect. You can also call the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 to discover additional resources and services in your community.
Another helpful resource is Connect2Affect that includes tools and information to help evaluate isolation risk and reconnect you with family, friends and your community.