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An Epidemic of Loneliness: New Data Shows the Toll of Social Isolation on Seniors

San Diego seniors are suffering from dual epidemics: COVID-19 and social isolation. Image via Shutterstock.

A new report from the AARP Foundation and United Health Foundation finds that social isolation among seniors has reached epidemic levels during COVID-19.

While social isolation was already a concern for many older people before COVID-19, new research confirms that the increase in isolation since the beginning of the pandemic amounts to its own public health crisis. Two-thirds of U.S. adults report experiencing social isolation, according to a survey by the AARP Foundation and United Health Foundation, and more than half report that the pandemic has caused their anxiety levels to increase.

Social isolation, defined as an absence of meaningful social relationships, poses significant health risks to older people. It increases the risk of premature death and exacerbates chronic health conditions including heart disease, depression, sleep disorders, anxiety, dementia, and malnutrition. The negative health impacts of prolonged isolation are more harmful than obesity and have been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

One of the groups most affected by the social isolation crisis is women, who are more likely to live alone in old age and are often burdened with caregiving responsibilities that make it harder to maintain social networks. Among women age 50+, two-thirds have experienced social isolation since COVID-19 began. 30% report they had gone one to three months without interacting with people outside of their household or workplace, and almost a quarter report having trouble accessing healthcare services.

The isolation crisis has been especially hard on low-income seniors, with a fifth of low-income adults age 50+ reporting challenges accessing food and healthcare services. Many factors play into this – loss of income due to the pandemic’s economic fallout, lack of internet connectivity preventing access to tele-health, lack of access to safe forms of transportation … all of these challenges become more limiting for seniors who are isolated without a support network.

As we look ahead to a long, hard winter of social distancing as the virus peaks, it is vital that we remember the older people who are suffering disproportionately due to the very restrictions that have been put in place to keep them safe. Older adults in care facilities who are unable to visit loved ones. Seniors with compromised immune systems who can’t risk going out. And those in marginalized communities who have experienced a lifetime of hardships that add up to poorer health and lack of access to resources that would improve their situations. These are the folks who we seek to help through our No Senior Alone initiative to combat social isolation.

If you would like to support our efforts, please make a donation to the No Senior Alone campaign. Thanks to a generous grant from the Sahm Family Foundation, all gifts up to $500,000 will be matched! We thank you for your support.

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