Social isolation and its influence on loneliness are a serious and persistent problem…and this was before COVID-19. An article from The American Psychological Association suggests that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk of mortality for older adults. Not only that, but isolation increases the risk for several other chronic diseases and mental health problems.
Now, with an unprecedented pandemic on our hands, senior living communities are challenged to keep infections from entering their communities. As parts of the economy open up, assisted living and nursing homes, understandably, remain locked down further exacerbating problems associated with social isolation.
Impact of Social Isolation
- Suppressed immune system. Loneliness causes an increase in stress hormones (cortisol). According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Cortisol can impair cognitive performance, compromise the immune system, and increase your risk for vascular problems, inflammation, and heart disease.”
- A decline in physical function. As people are increasingly confined, their physical activity level also declines. This can have a significant impact on overall health, mental health, and cognitive function. Activity is vital for aging adults. It helps maintain bone density, strength, and flexibility.
- Depression and anxiety. The potential for depression and anxiety disorders can increase as people become more isolated. Feelings of despair and loss of control can contribute to these mental health problems. A vicious cycle ensues: loss of function leads to a decrease in activity which leads to a greater decline.
- Memory problems. Social connections help keep our minds sharp and focused. There are many potential causes of memory loss or other cognitive problems. Some research suggests that loneliness and isolation can contribute to loss of cognitive function.
How COVID has Affected Senior Living Communities
The news of deaths from COVID in nursing homes across the country has been devastating. Although the rate of infection has not been as high in assisted living communities, the mandatory quarantine of residents has had significant effects on the health and well-being of those residents. Some of the impacts are the following:
- At the time of this article, the vast majority of senior living communities across the country are not allowing non-essential visitors. Translation: no family members can visit. This has had a significant detrimental effect on the cognitive function and well-being of residents. Lack of social connection and interaction is a risk factor for Alzheimer's and other dementias. Not to mention the exacerbation of a pre-existing cognitive impairment condition due to the lack of social interaction and engagement.
- Activities and other amenities have been discontinued. The social activity that is so indigenous to senior living has been largely curtailed due to the pandemic.
- Access to technology is limited. Technology has the potential to connect people with not only their families but the outside world. Most older adults have limited technology skills and have no one to show them how to use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Facetime, or Zoom.
- Advocacy becomes very challenging in an environment where no visitors are allowed. Nothing can replace the face to face contact with a loved one to assess how and if they are being properly cared for.
The Advantage of Home Care
Some families across the country are taking their loved ones out of assisted living and nursing home communities. Others continue to see the value that assisted living can bring to someone’s life even during current restrictions.
Home care does have some advantages over senior living:
- Personal care needs can be met safely in someone’s home without the restrictions imposed by senior living.
- Caregivers can minimize older adult's exposure to outside infection by taking trips to the pharmacy, store, etc. while maintaining proper safety protocols.
- The value of companionship that personal caregivers provide to an older adult cannot be overstated. Caregivers can offer stimulating and engaging conversations, activities, and outings.
- Home care caregivers are the eyes and ears of care. They report on physical and mental health status changes.
- Caregivers can assist a senior with learning technology. With the advent of telehealth visits due to the pandemic, caregivers can be invaluable in assisting with that process.
- Some assisted living communities do consider home care companies to be essential, paving the way for caregivers to actively participate in the care and well-being of residents.
Social Isolation in the Time of COVID
COVID-19 has shaken up the senior care industry in ways we couldn’t even imagine six months ago. Long-standing nursing home problems have been exposed. The effects of imposed restrictions on seniors and the consequences of forced isolation are being evaluated daily. Protecting older adults from a potentially fatal virus is critical, but so is finding ways to keep seniors engaged and healthy.
Decisions about where is the best and safest place for a senior to reside is a very personal decision. Weighing and the pros and cons of each situation is the best approach, keeping in mind that social interaction is a basic human need that has physical and mental health benefits.