Published on September 25, 2020

Senior man sitting at home alone

The importance of social connection

Michelle Meier, Senior Resource Center

A multitude of studies have been completed on the effects of social isolation and loneliness on the aging population. These studies show that social isolation can create a wide range of serious health issues in older adults, more harmful than even smoking. What doesn’t exist is a wealth of studies and history to lead us through combatting these issues in the wake of the current coronavirus pandemic. 

There is a distinct difference between social isolation and loneliness. While social isolation describes the absence of social contact, loneliness is a subjective experience. For instance, it’s possible to be lonely in a crowd, but not be socially isolated. Following this line of thinking, one can see that older adults who live alone are socially isolated but not necessarily lonely, and yet we are discovering that seniors who live in various stages of senior housing and other community settings are lonely. 

While social distancing is recommended to curb the transmission of the virus amid the current pandemic, there are ways to ensure that we combat the trend of social distancing from becoming social isolation for the seniors in our community. This isn’t just important for seniors but for people of all ages, as the community has experienced what this feels like while under stay-at-home orders to curb during the initial spread of the virus. 

With that in mind, Bei Wu, dean's professor in global health at New York University’s Rory Meyers College of Nursing and the co-director of the NYU Aging Incubator, published an article in the journal Global Health Research and Policy that shared several ways to help seniors feel more connected while diligently protecting their health during COVID-19. 

Encourage physical distance and social connection

There are ways to stay socially connected, even in person, while practicing appropriate distancing and other precautions. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently updated its recommendation on allowing visitors into nursing homes and other health facilities. While the recommendations include practices to ensure the health and well-being of seniors, the prior months of isolation and lack of outside connection from friends and family have received new attention. For seniors already experiencing significant health issues, the risk must be weighed amongst numerous factors, including the prevalence of the virus in any specific community, but community living facilities are doing more and more to provide a setting where residents can safely see friends and family in person. 

Use technology to combat isolation

While a phone call can’t replace in-person interactions, hugs or other physical contact, seniors have opportunities to remain connected to loved ones and friends using technology. A February 2020 AARP study found that 51% of older Americans say they bought a tech product in the past year. Whether through Skype, FaceTime, Zoom or GrandPad (a secure tablet for seniors), many tech-savvy seniors are able to have face-to-face communication. For those who are separated by distance that can’t plan an in-person visit, this technology can allow both sides to experience that connection. 

There are also many other ways to continue to support the seniors in our community.

  • Good Neighbor Day is Monday, September 28. If it’s been a while since you checked in on a senior neighbor, stop by and say hello.
  • Seniors also can reach out to their friends and neighbors. Loneliness can happen at all ages, and younger neighbors may be struggling with loneliness too.
  • It’s still not advisable to invite neighbors over for dinner due to the COVID pandemic, so take them a plate of food and drop it off with a quick hello. Give them your phone number in case they need assistance or a friendly voice to talk to.
  • With winter coming, consider becoming a volunteer with the Safe Winter Walkway program. The City of Lawrence and the Senior Resource Center match area seniors with a volunteer willing to shovel snow in the winter and ensure that their neighbors have a safe walkway outside their homes during inclement weather. Contact Larry Woydziak at 785-842-0543 if you’re interested in participating.

As we continue to navigate the realities of life in a pandemic, remember the importance of social connection. It looks a lot different these days, but there are ways to remain connected during a pandemic. Heed the recommendations on creating safe interactions, utilize technology to reach out to those you can’t see in person, and support your neighbors as we ride out the current reality of life with COVID-19. With a little effort to reach out to the seniors in your life, you may find you are more connected and a little less lonely. There is as much in it for you as there is for the one you reach out to. 

Michelle Meier is the director of marketing and communications for the Senior Resource Center.

The importance of social connection

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