“Because of coronavirus, I haven’t been within six feet of another person in over a month, and it makes me feel so lonely and isolated.”
Those are the words of a 70-year-old, socially isolated widowed grandmother. She is also a breast cancer survivor, has a compromised immunity and is one of the 56 percent of Americans age 65 and over living with two or more chronic conditions. Her thoughts and situation capture the unprecedented impact from the coronavirus pandemic on the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and countless others around the world.
Many of these older adults were facing significant challenges that were impacting their health long before the pandemic. Take social isolation and loneliness, which disproportionately impact seniors, and have been shown to influence both physical and mental health. In fact, lonely or socially isolated older adults are four times more likely to be re-hospitalized within a year of discharge. One study suggests that feeling lonely is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Older adults need our help to stay healthy and engaged during the coronavirus pandemic, ensuring that social isolation or loneliness does not impede their ability to stay both physically and mentally healthy. Many will deal with anxiety well after the initial pandemic wave passes and need more than reassurance. They’ll be hesitant to re-enter society, especially if the pandemic re-emerges in the fall or winter. For them, adjusting to the “new normal” will not be easy.
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Long before the coronavirus pandemic, social isolation and loneliness posed serious problems for older adults. The pandemic has brought these social determinants of health to the forefront, exposing and magnifying the issue. We all now understand in some sense what it’s like to be isolated.
Older adults may be facing multiple health and other challenges, but they have lived long lives and have the experience to manage them. Many are raising their grandchildren, starting new businesses or going back to school. They are resilient, wise and driven. They want to live their lives and be in the lives of their loved ones.
We need to significantly enhance our efforts, now more than ever, to solve the impact of social determinants of health among older adults, so they are not out of sight when the coronavirus pandemic ends. Social distancing must not mean social isolation. Local communities across the country have been hyper-focused on older adults, and many have put in incredible efforts to support them. We must not lose that momentum when the pandemic ends.
How can you help make a difference? It’s simple. Think of one older adult in your life, pick up the phone and make it a point to check in with him or her twice as much as you have done in the past.
If you don’t have someone that fits the bill, there are organizations in your community that would welcome your help. Most of us have felt socially isolated or lonely these past few weeks. Imagine if you had been dealing with this for years.
Crises like the coronavirus pandemic bring out the best in Americans. When we go back to the office, our kids go back to school and stores reopen, we will have some variation of a new normal. But for the older adults still confined to their homes because there is no vaccine available to them, we cannot forget what it was like to be in their shoes.
Out of sight must not be out of mind. We all need to band together and prioritize our efforts so that millions of older adults don’t experience the negative health impacts of social isolation or loneliness.
Let’s keep these older adults in our hearts so they can live life to the fullest in the “new normal.” We cannot allow social distancing to mean social isolation.
Richard Carmona, MD, MPH, FACS, was the 17th Surgeon General of the United States and is a distinguished professor at the University of Arizona, and William Shrank, MD, MSHS, is the chief medical officer of Humana.
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