Safe But Lonely
In June of this year, 56% of people older than 50 said they sometimes or often felt isolated from others—more than double the 27% who felt that way in a similar poll in 2018. Nearly one-half of those polled in June of this year also said they felt more isolated than they had just before the pandemic arrived in the United States, and one-third said they felt they had less companionship than before.
The new findings come from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, which is done for the University of Michigan (U-M) Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center. Both the 2020 and 2018 polls on loneliness involved a national sample of more than 2,000 adults aged 50 to 80.
“As the pandemic continues, it will be critical to pay attention to how well we as a society support the social and emotional needs of older adults,” says John Piette, PhD, a professor at the U-M School of Public Health who worked with the poll team. “The intersection of loneliness and health still needs much study, but even as we gather new evidence, all of us can take time to reach out to older neighbors, friends, and relatives in safe ways as they try to avoid the coronavirus.”
Social contacts suffered too, according to the poll, with 46% of older adults reporting in June that they infrequently interacted with friends, neighbors, or family outside their household—doing so once a week or less—compared with 28% who said this in 2018.
The poll points to some bright spots, however. For instance, the 46% of older adults who said they interacted with people in their neighborhood at least once a week were less likely to say they’d experienced forms of loneliness. Technology also helped many people older than 50 connect with others, including the 59% who reported using social media at least once a week, and the 31% who used video chat at least once a week.
And many older adults said they engaged in healthy behaviors despite the pandemic—including 75% who said they were getting outdoors or interacting with nature, and 62% who said they got exercise several times a week. But those experiencing loneliness were less likely to engage in these healthy behaviors.
“The change we see in these measures in less than two years is truly remarkable,” says Preeti Malani, MD, the U-M Medical School professor who directs the poll and has training in geriatrics and infectious diseases. “The use of technology to bridge the gap, and the importance of keeping up healthy routines like exercise, sleep, a balanced diet, and getting outside, will no doubt continue to be important in the months ahead.”
Interactions With Health and Lifestyle
The poll also found that one-half of those who live alone and 52% of those who are unemployed or disabled said they felt a lack of companionship, compared with 39% of those who live with others, work, or are retired.
Similarly, just over one-half of those who said their physical health was fair or poor and two-thirds of those who said the same about their mental health said they lacked companionship. Nearly three-quarters of those who said their mental health was fair or poor said they felt isolated, compared with 55% of those reporting better mental health.
The use of technology to connect appears to be a double-edged sword, with those who use social media and video chat being more likely to say they felt isolated.
“Past studies have shown that prolonged isolation has a profound negative effect on health and well-being—as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” says Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. “It’s not surprising that older adults reported more loneliness since the pandemic began, particularly those who live alone. We need to continue finding ways to connect and engage with one another throughout this public health crisis.”
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine issued a report in February 2020 about the need for the health care system to help in preventing, identifying, and addressing loneliness in people older than 50.
— Source: University of Michigan