AARP Eye Center
Alone but not lonely: That’s Pauline Sneath’s goal for her father, who is 92 and living by himself in Indiana. With Sneath’s mother in a memory care facility, the Columbus resident, 66, applies her past experience as a hospice nurse to help her dad stay socially connected.
She calls regularly and asks him who has visited and how his neighbors are doing. And she applies her strategies to herself, committing to a regular schedule of volunteering to make sure she sees valued friends, even in the depths of winter.
Many older Americans struggle with loneliness, with the coronavirus pandemic making it even harder for them to maintain meaningful relationships.
Some of the permanent changes brought about by the crisis, such as home delivery of daily necessities, may also have the unintended effect of increasing isolation.
AARP Wisconsin is helping lead a new coalition of government and social service agencies—the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness. The group will identify root causes of these conditions among older adults and people with disabilities and advocate for solutions.
Good friends, good health
One of the coalition’s goals is to help people understand how chronic loneliness can affect physical and cognitive health, says Sam Wilson, state director for AARP Wisconsin.
It’s easy to mistake busyness for genuine connection, and activity for friendship, says Wilson. Loneliness stems less from the amount of social interaction and more from the “quality and depth of interaction,” he says.
People who are bereaved often fall into a tailspin. Those with disabilities might mistakenly trade independence for meaningful time with others. The very definition of loneliness differs by ethnic tradition and community, which is why AARP is exploring ways to design programs to suit Black, Latino, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ communities, and others.
In a 2020 study, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers found that community outreach to older adults, even those with limited access to or capacity to use technology, was beneficial. Having an appointment to look forward to and socializing online appeared to be key factors in preventing deep loneliness from intensifying.
Miriam Oliensis-Torres, 68, a Milwaukee resident who has spent her career as a social worker specializing in geriatric issues, says that loneliness can result in a cascade of deterioration in physical health and cognitive ability.
“If people are alone, nobody knows if they’re taking their medication correctly or not,” she says. “People tend to be more sedentary when they are alone, so they become more prone to falls. They may not be eating well.”
Family and friends can detect escalating loneliness by continuing conversations about daily habits well beyond superficial greetings, says Oliensis-Torres.
“Don’t just ask someone how they’re doing,” she says. “Ask about what they had for breakfast. Look for changes since the last time you saw them in person. People should be talking with someone at least once a day.”
“All those little interactions help you maintain social skills,” says Sneath. “Mental, physical and financial wellness are all connected to social wellness.”
Joanne Cleaver is a writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina.
For More on Caregiving