En español | The coronavirus pandemic is causing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation among adults, carrying with it significant health and emotional risks, according to a new report from AARP Foundation and the United Health Foundation.
Two-thirds of adults say they are experiencing social isolation, and 66 percent say their anxiety levels have increased during the pandemic, according to survey results the foundations released this week in “The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report.”
The widespread impact of COVID-19 and social distancing measures used to prevent infection are intensifying existing feelings of loneliness, according to the survey, and, in some cases, the impact is more pronounced on older adults, particularly among women and those who are low income. More than half of adults 50 and older reported social isolation — defined as an absence of meaningful social relationships — during the pandemic.
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"This is a very real public health crisis,” says Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation. “Decades of research on prolonged social isolation and loneliness … [shows that it is] worse for health than obesity and as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day."
Astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent 340 days isolated in space, is working with the foundation to bring awareness about the report's findings and solutions. While astronauts are in space NASA provides support and counseling for them, Kelly says, but the survey shows that many people who feel isolated do not take advantage of available resources. Only 11 percent of survey respondents turned to a medical professional when feeling sad or down, and almost a third of those 50 and over said they didn't turn to anyone for support during the pandemic.
"When I was in space for a year, not only was help available to me,” Kelly says, “it was mandatory.” On earth, however, “people don't know that help is readily available.”
But there are avenues of assistance, including AARP Foundation's Connect2Affect.org, a site that provides resources to address social isolation, such as an assessment to determine risk. The site also features a chat bot designed for friendly conversations and to guide people looking to rebuild their social connections.
Keeping social relationships healthy
The online survey of 2,010 adults age 18 and older, taken from Aug. 21 to 25, revealed that since the pandemic began, adults in general have experienced mainly negative emotions. Respondents most often reported feeling frustration, stress, anxiety, isolation, tiredness and sadness. Among participants 50 and older, women were more likely to report that they've felt these negative emotions since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Low-income adults and high-income respondents 50-plus reported feeling more stressed than middle-income adults.
More than 7 in 10 adults said the pandemic has made it more difficult for them to connect with friends, and nearly a third reported that the longest they've gone without interacting with people outside their household or workplace was between one and three months. Among participants 50 and older, women struggled the most, with almost 3 in 10 reporting they had gone one to three months without interacting with people outside of their household or workplace.
"Many caregivers are women and are so focused on taking care of their loved ones that they often don't reserve time during the week to keep their social connections whole and healthy,” Ryerson says.
Katherine Lang, 77, of Beaufort, South Carolina, lives alone and struggled with loneliness during the pandemic, especially during the hot summer months, when she spent most of her time indoors. Worried about COVID-19 exposure, Lang quit her part-time job at a local bookstore and went long periods without seeing anyone in person.
"It certainly impacts one's mood — I have felt very lonely,” she says. “It was just awful there for a while."
This type of isolation has a direct effect on day-to-day life. Indeed, according to the survey, out of those who said they had experienced social isolation, 50 percent said they felt a lack of motivation, 41 percent were more anxious than usual, 37 percent were depressed, and 36 percent felt sadder than usual.
With the cooler weather and her area having adopted a mask mandate, Lang says she felt more comfortable venturing out, which “was a tremendous help.”
Kelly says he has implemented the strategies he used while in space to help combat his sense of isolation during the pandemic. Those strategies include following a well-planned schedule for work and for down time. He schedules periods for exercise, hobbies and other distractions that are unrelated to the pandemic.
"Compared to many people out there, I have it easy … but the days run together,” he says. “We have this challenge in front of us, and there are things we have to do to get past it in the most efficient and safe way possible.”
Health may suffer
Feeling isolated doesn't just affect our mental well-being; it takes a toll on our physical health, too, possibly resulting in heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep disorders.
Even so, people aren't raising these issues with their health care professionals. The survey found that during health care visits since the start of the pandemic, people discussed their general health, COVID-19 symptoms and prescription medications significantly more often than they addressed anxiety, stress and social isolation.
To ward off some of the stress and sadness they're feeling, adults instead tend to reach out to family and friends for support, according to the report. Fifty-three percent said they turned to family, and 47 percent to friends; 14 percent said they leaned on spiritual leaders, and 12 percent sought out neighbors.
The report's findings, however, don't bode well for the future, as the pandemic stretches on. More than half of adults surveyed said that if social distancing guidelines remain in place over the winter holidays, this will increase the negative impact on their well-being.
Lang said she is trying to participate in activities that are within her comfort level but that also help her allay anxiety and loneliness. She recently gathered with two friends on someone's porch for a socially distant glass of wine, and her children and grandchildren are coming for a long-delayed visit. Lang also traded in her old car for an upgraded version, which makes her feel like she can safely drive to see family in Nashville, Tennessee, if she wants to. “Just being able to take control over that one thing made me feel better,” she says.