In the last few weeks, we have seen numerous articles about social isolation. Check my Twitter feed! The net-net is that, while things may be opening up, social contact does not necessarily alleviate social isolation. And those most vulnerable have deep emotional and mental issues to deal with coming out of the pandemic (if indeed we are coming out!).
In March of 2020, businesses and schools scrambled to shift to virtual environments with the expectation that the Covid-19 outbreak would only last for a few weeks. Unfortunately, this was not the case.
Most Americans spent the next year primarily indoors with very limited contact with friends, family and coworkers to slow the spread of the virus. The social distancing measures necessitated by the pandemic resulted in many people experiencing a profound sense of loneliness and isolation – perhaps none more so than the older adult population.
Even prior to the pandemic, an estimated 25% of seniors were socially isolated and 43% were lonely. According to a 2020 study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, nearly a fourth of older adults are considered to be socially isolated.
Social isolation among seniors is incredibly common and dangerous. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia as well as higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Loneliness is also associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and 26% increased risk of stroke.
Due to the adverse mental and physical health impacts of loneliness, combatting social isolation among seniors is essential to their overall wellbeing. Fortunately, the pandemic greatly increased the use of social technologies, many of which will be used widely even as the world slowly returns to normal.
These technologies are great tools for combatting social isolation among seniors who are not able to connect with their social circle in person regularly.
I recently spoke with Aisha Parillon, Senior Director of Senior Centers at JASA. Their agency serves 40,000 older adults annually in New York City, providing critical services, interventions and partnerships that promote aging with a purpose and provide autonomy for older adults.
Whether you’re an older adult, caregiver or generally interested in fighting this issue, she suggested five ways that technology can be leveraged to fight loneliness:
Technologies like Zoom and FaceTime are great tools for helping older adults easily stay in touch with relatives and friends they are not regularly able to see.
During the pandemic, these tools were critical for staying connected with loved ones and can now be used to ensure older adults with physical disabilities and/or those who live far away from family can stay social without having to travel.
During the pandemic, the number of older adults using telehealth services jumped from 4% as of May 2019 to up to 26% between March and June of 2020. Virtual doctor’s appointments are a powerful tool for combatting the negative mental and physical impacts of social isolation by empowering seniors to connect regularly with their healthcare providers.
Virtual activities allow older adults, regardless of physical ability and means, to remain active and engaged by participating in new hobbies at home.
During the pandemic, organizations like JASA and Sage Stream provided diverse programming ranging from exercise, art and cooking classes virtually. For many seniors, this type of programming was essential to fighting loneliness in periods of lockdown.
Tech companies are beginning to focus more and more on developing new products to promote healthy aging – according to CNBC, the active-aging industry in the U.S. is expected to triple by 2022 to nearly $30 billion.
Many of these devices focus on combatting social isolation and the health risks associated with it by alerting seniors to check in with family, take prescribed medications and prompting them to get out for walks. As these devices are less mainstream than technologies like Zoom, investment in tech support and training will be needed for the benefits to be tangible.
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be excellent tools for seniors to stay connected with the changing world around them from the comfort of their homes. These platforms can empower older adults to stay updated on cultural shifts and current events, in turn giving them a sense of connectedness with the world and their peers.
While these various uses for technology have the potential to change aging for the better, too many seniors do not have the proper training or connectivity necessary to use these tools. We must invest in getting older adults connected and trained on how to use these new tools and technologies.
At a policy level, this means expanding the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and other supplemental programs to help seniors meet the costs of these technologies, as well as increasing funding for community-based organizations that can provide trainings for older adults.
At an individual level, people with older adults in their lives can help by showing them how to use different technologies. Through increased funding for access to and education around technology, more seniors will be able to use these tools to lead healthier, happier and more social lives.
What technologies did you use to combat social isolation during the various stages of lockdown? If you have older adults in your life, how did you help them stay connected? Is social isolation a serious issue in your community? Please share your thoughts.