Here’s a bit of irony that’s come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.
People in their 60s and older are both the most vulnerable to the coronavirus, and the most likely to suffer the unintentional health consequences of social distancing and being isolated from other people.
The social isolation that’s been necessary in order to avoid a COVID-19 infection has resulted in a sweeping epidemic of loneliness, especially among seniors.
But unfortunately, even during “normal” times, senior loneliness is a big problem. A 2018 survey conducted by Cigna found that nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reported feeling alone sometimes or always. But besides loneliness leading to feelings of sadness or depression, loneliness contributes to disease.
There’s a lot of evidence that both social isolation and loneliness are linked to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and hypertension, and a 2018 meta-analysis of 35 research articles confirmed that feeling lonely is a risk factor for all-cause mortality for both men and women.
Clearly, we need ways to help older people cope with the loneliness during the pandemic and beyond. And Zoom calls just don’t cut it for many seniors who are not tech-savvy, or who are hesitant about meeting up with people in the online environment.
Fortunately, there are other proven ways to counteract the harmful effects of loneliness.
6 proven interventions for senior loneliness
A team led by Dr. Christopher Williams of the University of Cambridge has identified no less than 58 studies that reported interventions to reduce social isolation and loneliness.
The important thing is that all of these interventions could potentially be adapted for the pandemic, either through videoconferencing (Zoom) or by meeting outdoors, once the weather gets warm enough.
Most of the 58 studies were related to older people.
Here are six interventions that the team felt held great promise for use during the pandemic.
- Robotic pets. Yes, that’s right! Two studies indicated that robotic dogs could prove as effective as real dogs in reducing loneliness. In one study, weekly sessions with an interactive, robotic seal that imitates the noises of a baby harp seal when touched, significantly improved the loneliness scores of participants. Real pets have been shown to also offer many other health benefits for seniors. But if a real pet is not a possibility, it’s easy to find lifelike robotic pets at a reasonable price. Joy For All Companions Pets are very lifelike lap pets created with seniors in mind! No vet bills, no house training and no loud barking!
- Mindfulness and Tai Chi. Meditation and Tai Chi practices led to significant improvement in loneliness scores. Other studies have found the ancient practice of Tai Chi can be effective in relieving symptoms of depression in older adults.
- Laughter therapy. Laughter exercises, deep breathing, singing and laughter meditation are low-cost interventions that also help reduce loneliness.
- Talking about art. Discussions where participants are asked to describe a painting and to describe the feelings, memories and thoughts it evokes, also significantly lowered loneliness scores.
- Indoor gardening. Caring for others increases our sense of well-being, and those “others” can include plants! A study of an indoor gardening program in a nursing home showed a decrease in loneliness scores among residents who participated.
- Reminiscence therapy. Here, weekly discussion sessions were structured around different topics, such as sharing memories, identifying past positive relationships, recalling family history and life stories, and identifying positive strengths and goals.
Get comfortable with technology
Chronic feelings of loneliness can be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
During “normal” times, excessive use of social media and texting, instead of having face-to-face interactions, also contributes to loneliness. But, of course, technology has become our friend during the pandemic. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t “see” my friends and family on Zoom. It’s the closest we can come to “being there.”
If you are less than comfortable with the world of videoconferencing, reach out to a friend who can help you get connected. I have (finally!) dragged a friend of mine, kicking and screaming, into the world of Zoom, and she now can’t imagine her life without it!
One last thing: when loneliness strikes, turn toward thinking of the needs of others, and reaching out, with a phone call or a sack of cookies on the doorstep. It’s helped me get through those moments of isolation, and it can help you, too.
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Combatting the Epidemic of Loneliness in Seniors — AgingCare