Living Well

Loneliness in the era of COVID-19

Virginia 'Ginny' Painter, RN
Loneliness in the era of COVID-19

Loneliness in the era of COVID-19 can create serious health risks for seniors.

A century ago, life expectancy for men was just 53.6 years; for women, 54.6 years. Today, there are a reported 52 million Americans age 65 and older, and that number is expected to nearly double by 2060. Part of the reason for the extended life expectancy is the advancement in healthcare, which can lead to a longer, more active, and productive life. Having turned 98 in January, Betty White, who is best known for her role as Rose in the TV sitcom Golden Girls, was once asked about getting older, and she said, “It’s not a surprise, we knew it was coming – make the most of it.”

Making the most of it means many things. For some, it’s working well into the senior years. For others, it’s volunteering, participating in group activities, or regularly gathering with friends and family. However, like so many things, COVID-19 has dramatically influenced how we socialize today, and for some, especially seniors, the isolation and loneliness are impacting mental and physical health.

Being alone is taking a toll on people. 

It wasn’t that long ago that we were popping champagne celebrating the start of 2020, and bets are the words “isolation,” “social distancing,” and “quarantine” were rarely used by anyone in conversation. Oh, how that has changed.

By mid-March, most of us were home having to deal with the new reality of extreme social isolation to stop the spread of COVID, and for many, that meant being alone. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) notes that “our connection with others is the one thing that enables us to survive and thrive,” and without that, we can become vulnerable to health-related problems. Research shows that isolation and loneliness can increase health risks for:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Cognitive decline, such as increased forgetfulness
  • Weakened immune system

Mentally, loneliness due to by isolation can increase the risk for:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or behavior
  • Increased drug and alcohol abuse

If you are among those battling loneliness or depression, first know, you are not alone and know there are professionals available to help. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that many people are experiencing increased anxiety during this time and reaching out to a mental health professional is one way of coping with undue stress. There are several options available to those seeking help, and all you need to do is pick up the phone and call:

  • 2.1.1 – Get Connected. Get Help. 211 is a vital service that connects millions of people to help every year. Simply call 211 or search for your local 211 here.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish
  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357) and TTY 1-800-487-4889
  • Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990

Seniors can go out again and stay safe during a pandemic.

If you are healthy with no serious underlying medical issues, and showing no signs of coronavirus symptoms, resuming life is possible now as long as you take added precautions. Some ways of getting back into a routine while staying safe include:

  • Going to the grocery store: make sure you are masked and have hand sanitizer readily available and stay six feet apart while avoiding people in aisles. Remember to wash your hands as soon as you return home.
  • Schedule lunch with friends. Instead of going to a restaurant, pick a spot outside where you can remain six feet apart. Have lunch guests bring their own chairs, food, and drink. 
  • Schedule a drive-by visit with those who you want to see but are not comfortable being around. Being able to talk to someone in person can lift your spirits, and you can do it safely by having one party stay in their car and talking from afar.

One issue healthcare professionals heavily stress with seniors is to not let anxiety about safety delay medical attention. If you feel you have a medical emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room. West Jefferson Medical Center now has a senior-friendly emergency room where you can schedule an appointment so you can stay home until your allotted time. Once you arrive, you are brought to a senior-friendly exam room where the medical staff will see you and address current health issues.

You can learn more about our senior care emergency room and all the ways we make our seniors feel extra special by visiting wjmc.org/senior.

About Virgina 'Ginny' Painter, MPH, MSW, RN:
Ginny Painter, MPH, MSW, RN, earned her Master of Public Health and Master of Social Work from Tulane University. She has an Associate of Science Degree in Nursing and is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette. Her combined practices in the healthcare field attribute to over 19 years of experience. Ginny is West Jefferson Medical Center's senior care nurse navigator in the senior care emergency department.