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NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly Talks About Social Isolation

He chats about his year in space and provides tips on how he fought the issue

Scott Kelly

Getty Images/AARP

Mike Ellison:

Astronaut Scott Kelly knows a thing or two about feeling isolated.

Scott Pelley:

Astronaut Scott Kelly is one half of an unprecedented experience. He will fly a year on the International Space Station to see how he holds up against his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, who remains here on earth.

Barack Obama:

Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space, so, good luck captain. Make sure to Instagram it. We’re proud of you.

Voice:

And, liftoff – a year in space starts now.

Scott Kelly:

You know, physically, I feel very good. But I think the hardest part is being isolated in a physical sense from people on the ground that are important to you.

Mike Ellison:

He set the record for the American who spent the longest time on the International Space Station in a single mission. Years after his return, Scott Kelly urges people to do what they can to address isolation. Today, we’ll hear about what precautions he took before his journey – and how he applies those lessons now during the pandemic.

That’s coming up next.

Hi, I’m Mike Ellison with An AARP Take on Today.

Mike Ellison:

 

To help us understand social isolation and to discuss what resources are available to those who want to support their loved ones, my co-host Bob Edwards sat down with Dr. Rhonda Randall, Chief Medical Officer at UnitedHealthcare and Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP Foundation.

 

Bob Edwards:

Dr. Randall, how exactly is social isolation defined?

Dr. Rhonda Randall:

A lot of people confuse social isolation and loneliness, and they are important measures, both of them related but different. Social isolation is more than a feeling of loneliness. It's something that we can measure objectively. It's defined as infrequent or no social contact with others. Specifically, individuals who are living alone, those who are never married, widowed, divorced, or need assistance with their activities of daily living, for example.

Mike Ellison:

Even if they’re with one or more other people on the International Space Station, astronauts can still feel disconnected. Scott Kelly says that’s why NASA and other space agencies specifically prepare their people for their relative solitude. The stress of isolation can be so severe that it can jeopardize a mission. Call it an occupational hazard.

Scott Kelly:

It’s something that NASA understands has an impact on not only your mental health but also your physical health as well. Lack of human contact, being separated from your family, your friends, not being able to experience nature and weather. So it's a public health issue that affects both mental and physical health. Physical in terms of it could affect your immune system. It can affect other bodily systems.

Mike Ellison:

Increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and sleep disorders number among other ways social isolation can impact one’s physical health. These are all noted in a study recently published by AARP Foundation in collaboration with the United Health Foundation. It’s called “The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report.”

It’s available at Connect 2 Affect dot org – that’s “connect, the number two, affect, dot org.” We’ll leave a link in the description.

Bob Edwards:

Lisa, we know the conditions of the pandemic has made social isolation and loneliness worse, but just how bad has it gotten?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

Oh, Bob, it really is on the rise. As you know, social isolation, in particular among vulnerable older adults, was already a public health crisis pre-pandemic. But in our work with United Health Foundation in a recent survey, we're seeing the numbers escalate so much so that we see a high percentage of older adults who are reporting that they are socially isolated, and many, many saying that they're seeing an increase in their anxiety levels.

Scott Kelly:

And of those people that experienced that social isolation and anxiety, only 11% of them actually seek any kind of help, which is unfortunate. Because I had the experience of, when I was in space for a year, not only was help available to me, it was mandatory. There was no option. Right from the beginning every two weeks, I would talk to four different guys at the same time, psychiatrists and psychologists to help coping with that kind of situation.

Mike Ellison:

The report found that for adults 50 and older who have experienced social isolation during the pandemic, a third have felt depressed; four-in-ten have felt more anxious; and half report feeling less motivated.

Yet, as we just heard, so few see a health care professional to address it.

Scott Kelly:

Well, I think it's just this stigma around mental health treatment. And people are, they're very eager to seek help for physical ailments, but for some reason there's always been this negative thing associated with mental health treatment. And it shouldn't be. And I think the other reason probably is that they don't know that help is readily available. And that's why this effort by AARP Foundation and United Health I think is important because not only does it identify the problem, but it also gives people a place where they can go to seek information, advice, and help at the website Connect2Affect.org.

Bob Edwards:

Tell me about AARP Foundation's Connect2Affect initiative.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

It is a platform that is highly interactive and is our ability to pull together both research, stories from individuals who are experiencing isolation or are caregivers for older adults, because caregivers are at increased risk for isolation.

It's also a portal. Over 100,000 individuals to date have taken a very quick assessment where they're able to check on their level of isolation or their risk factors, and then immediately be connected to tools and resources. We have a chat bot where since, Bob, since the pandemic began, we've had over 60,000 users on our chat bot. The chat bot coaches them to retain their social connections.

Mike Ellison:

Amid a pandemic, Scott Kelly finds that he needs to remind himself of his training from time to time. One way he has learned to cope with isolation is to create a routine for himself and stick to it.

Scott Kelly:

So when I was in space for a year, I flew a previous six-month mission, and I realized during that flight that six months is a long time to be in space. So I was going into it with a plan. And the plan had ways for me to cope with the isolation, which was really the hardest part about it. Scheduling times for work, times for exercise, times for things that are distractions, any hobby or something that has absolutely nothing to do with the pandemic or work, the time to take care of your environment.

One of the great things NASA does is plan for that next failure and the next failure after that. And when there's a lot of unknowns out there, that's something that we all need to consider. So that spaceflight, I think, mindset has helped me with this. Now having said all that I said to my wife, many months ago, I said, "If I had to spend a year in space or a year in this apartment, the apartment wins every time." Because there's just so many more options of things to do, and stuff doesn't float, which makes your life a lot easier.

Mike Ellison:

However, we’re all aware that taking extra time to take care of our own mental health can be hard to do while managing our other responsibilities.

Dr. Rhonda Randall:

We have particularly growing concerns that some of the things related to physical distancing and stay-at-home orders while necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, for example, that that may have led to more social isolation and loneliness for many older adults who already had disconnection from their family or community. We're also concerned that we see a disparity that more women are affected than men, for example. Among women who are over the age of 50, about a third of them have told us that they have gone as many as three months without connecting with anyone outside of their home or workplace, for example. We see that older women are twice as likely to report that they're feeling overwhelmed. They're also more likely than men to report that they're feeling anxious or stressed.

Dr. Rhonda Randall:

In addition to that, we're also worried about caregivers. Caregiving, it comes with a significant rewards. It also comes with often significant neglect of your own health. We see that within caregivers and other adults, particularly those who have lower income, that they have a greater risk of social isolation that may have been impacted during the pandemic as well.

 

Bob Edwards:

The pandemic is still in full swing and might remain that way for a while. How can people who continue to be isolated prepare for the upcoming winter months and the holiday season?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

Dr. Randall and I can both jump in, and I bet we would both first say preparation is the key. Anticipating that it will be harder in many parts of the nation as winter approaches to gather outside where there is more safety and anticipating the holidays, which, Dr. Randall, I think, again, you'll agree with this, Bob, holidays create this expectation of a robust social network and of joy that is difficult for individuals who are disconnected. My advice is take the assessment on Connect2Affect.org and build a plan so that you can remain connected to others in your life and start deciding, maybe you're having a video chat as part of your Thanksgiving holiday this year, but building the plan, I think, taps into an isolated older adults agency and their own resilient state, and will help them. Dr. Randall, what do you think?

Dr. Rhonda Randall:

I think that's absolutely right, Lisa. I think what's most important is there's not a one-size-fit-all answer to this question, but I think what we want to do is make sure that we continue to take health in the broad context of what it is, not just the absence of a single disease, being COVID-19. We've got to think about the broader implications of health as well, and what's happening in your particular community and the risk of the individuals that are your loved ones, for example. I think everyone is going to need to decide how they can connect with their loved ones, with their neighbors, with people in need in their community, and mitigate the risk of the transmission of COVID-19 as much as possible. You might not be able to make it zero. You might need to have grandma, have her six feet away from everyone else the entire Thanksgiving, for example.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

Yes.

Dr. Rhonda Randall:

Your family members may need to wear masks during the socialization in your home, which is probably something that none of us rarely do, but just to protect the vulnerable populations. You may decide that you're going to have Thanksgiving this year, instead of one big family of 50, that you're going to have five smaller groups of 10. Whatever is the most appropriate way for you to assess and think of the overall health of your family, take that into consideration. I think sit down and have some conversation. Make a plan. Is it possible to do this and take away as much of the risk as possible?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

I'll go back to saying it will take all of us to solve growing isolation among older adults in our nation. I ask everyone to take time every day to think about five older adults who may be in need. Pick up the phone and call them. Reach out to them. Make a plan to have a virtual or over telephone cup of coffee. We always feel better when we reach out and volunteer to help someone else in need. It's preventive for us as well.

Scott Kelly:

It's funny, my 25-year-old daughter the other day, or actually it was probably like a week ago, she was kind of depressed and she was like, "Oh, I don't have a life," and all this sad complaining to me. And all I had to say to her was, "Samantha, we are in a worldwide pandemic. No one has a life right now." And she's like, "Oh yeah, I guess you're right." And she felt a lot better after that. So yeah, I feel that way. I feel the same way she does.

Even though everyone's situation is different, compared to many, many people out there, I have it easy. So I can't really put myself in other people's shoes, but still, you do feel like the days run together. And when is this going to be over? And I wish I could go out without a mask, and go to a bar or a restaurant or wherever, a movie. But I understand, 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. And that means being isolated.

Mike Ellison:

If you’ve been experiencing social isolation, remember that you aren’t alone. The data tell us that two-thirds of adults of any age have been feeling isolated. As our guests have said, it’s a public health crisis affecting just about everyone on earth -- or off of it.

Scott Kelly:

 

There is a lot of opportunities when you're isolated to miss your friends, your family. There was a sense of loneliness, but of course, I never really felt alone because not only was I always with people, but I had the ability to reach out to people on the Earth with phone calls, email, with video conferences on the weekend. And I think that experience is similar now. Even though people are isolated, they still don't need to be alone because there is ways for them to connect.


Mike Ellison:

 

Thanks to Astronaut Scott Kelly, Lisa Marsh Ryerson, Dr. Rhonda Randall and of course my co-host Bob Edwards for sharing with us. Once again, to take the isolation assessment or to learn more, visit Connect 2 Affect dot org – that’s “connect, the number two, affect, dot org.”

 

If you liked this episode, please let us know by emailing us at newspodcast at A-A-R-P dot org.

 

Thanks to our news team.

 

Producers Colby Nelson and Danny Alarcon

Production Assistant Brigid Lowney

Engineer Julio Gonzales

Executive Producer Jason Young

 

And, of course, my co-hosts Wilma Consul and Bob Edwards.

 

Become a subscriber on Apple podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher and other apps. Be sure to rate our show as well.

 

For An AARP Take on Today, I’m Mike Ellison.

 

Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly knows a thing or two about feeling isolated. On this episode, we hear about his year-long trip in outer space and how he learned to combat social isolation. We also hear from AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson and Dr. Rhonda Randall, Chief Medical Officer at UnitedHealthcare to learn more about the physical and mental health effects of social isolation and what resources are available.

For more information:
Connect2Affect
The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report

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