For healthcare providers who work in geriatrics, you understand that social isolation and loneliness was already an issue for many older people, and COVID-19 has only exacerbated this. Luckily, there are proven strategies you can employ to mitigate loneliness in seniors.
Human beings require connection to others to survive and thrive. After all, experiencing belongingness and love from interpersonal relationships is part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s no surprise then that research demonstrates prolonged social isolation and loneliness leads to significant health problems. And this was BEFORE coronavirus invaded our daily lives.
The risk of COVID-19 complications increases dramatically with age. Therefore, to protect older adults, health officials and government leaders have implored seniors to remain isolated, restricting their exposure to others by staying at home or completely restricting visitation in nursing homes and hospitals. While these measures help to prevent the spread of the virus, the isolation results in increased anxiety, fear, and loneliness in seniors.
Health Risks Associated with Loneliness in Seniors
There is already a certain amount of seclusion older adults endure from living in a long-term care facility or from being home alone after loved ones or friends have passed. And no doubt, the coronavirus pandemic has only made this worse. Unfortunately, there are significant health risks associated with chronic loneliness. According to the National Institute on Aging, loneliness in seniors increases the risk for heart disease, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, cognitive decline, and ultimately death.
During these challenging times, what can healthcare providers do to improve older adults’ mental health and well-being? Read on for 10 practical tips to combat loneliness.
Improving Seniors’ Mental Health During the Pandemic
Implementing the solutions below can help mitigate the deleterious health risks associated with chronic loneliness while keeping seniors as safe as possible from the coronavirus:
1. Identify loneliness in your patients.
Healthcare professionals should assess whether their patients are isolated or are experiencing feelings of loneliness, anxiety or depression. If so, determine whether your patient’s symptoms are acute or chronic, which will help inform interventions. Additionally, consider telehealth visits, which enables older patients to access healthcare providers and mental health services while remaining socially distant.
2. Exercise to strengthen the body.
Taking care of the body physically can dramatically improve mental health. Exercise helps reduce feelings of loneliness, anxiety or depression by increasing serotonin or brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
- Take a walk outside while maintaining social distancing.
- Perform stretches or resistance band exercises.
- Follow along to an age-appropriate aerobics video or online exercise class.
- Try a fun activity such as gardening or dancing.
Want more exercise strategies for seniors?
3. Exercise to strengthen the brain.
Exercising your mind is important at all ages, but especially in seniors. Along with boosting mood, mental exercises help stimulate the brain and sharpen thinking, memory, reasoning, and processing skills.
- Read books or magazines
- Work on puzzles
- Learn a new language
- Draw or paint
- Write or journal
4. Stay connected with alternative forms of socialization.
While COVID-19 has changed socialization for everyone, there are still ways to stay in touch with friends or loves ones and maintain a safe social distance:
- Facetime, Zoom, or other online hangouts
- Phone calls or voice messages
- Letters or cards
- Exchanging photos or videos
- Social media
- Playing games online
- Face-to-face contact while maintaining an adequate social distance (Yes, staying physically distant is important, but maintaining social connection is more important than ever!)
- Buddy system – find someone to be a “buddy” and check in regularly with each other via phone calls or online chats
5. Do something enjoyable.
Find positive outlets to relax and unwind:
- Listening to music
- Sewing or knitting
- Watching movies
- Reading a book
- Attending an online religious service
6. Try something new.
Be adventurous and discover new enjoyable activities or hobbies. Think outside of the box:
- Bird watching
- Join an online group or forum
- Take an online class to learn a new skill
7. Adopt a pet.
An animal companion can help resolve feelings of isolation and loneliness. Dogs often prove to be great pets and have been shown to improve mental health by decreasing stress and anxiety. During the pandemic, several animal shelters have been arranging animal adoptions through remote methods as an option to stay safe.
8. Get adequate sleep.
Sleep is closely connected to mental and emotional health as a lack of sleep has been linked to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other conditions. That’s why its critically important to stick to a sleep schedule.
9. Control exposure to the news.
Constant reminders of the coronavirus pandemic via television or social media outlets can increase stress levels. Try to limit news information to 30-60 minutes (or less) per day.
10. Seek help if feeling overwhelmed or unsafe.
The CDC has useful resources to help if you or a patient is in an immediate crisis situation.
Loneliness and isolation are serious concerns for older adults always, but especially during COVID-19. But the truth of the matter is, seniors are not the only persons experiencing loneliness during these challenging times. Implementing the solutions above can help all of us decrease feelings of loneliness and anxiety while keeping us as safe as possible from the health risks of the virus.