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Loneliness And Social Isolation…What Should We Know And What Can We Do?

Loneliness and Social Isolation…What Should We Know and What Can We Do?

|Chelsi Myer and Dr. Erin Yelland, Kansas State University|

2020…what will we hold onto from the year 2020? There have been life-altering changes, high stress, a global pandemic, and discussions of racial, ethnic, and political divides. Among all the chaos, many people are staying home long after stay at home orders were in place. Caution and safety are at the forefront of so many minds, yet there is a deep-rooted issue not being addressed: mental and emotional health, particularly among the many older adults who may live alone and/or face significant health risks. Living alone and having limited social connections already heightens the risk of numerous health outcomes (e.g., anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline), but this pandemic has heightened those risks for so many more, as we have seen age to be a major risk factor for severe complications or death due to COIVD-19. As such, loneliness and social isolation are likely at an all-time high for older adults, and are issues that we must both be aware of and address.

So, what’s the difference between loneliness and social isolation? Although some may think these concepts are synonymous, they actually mean different things. Loneliness is a feeling or experience that some people might have. It can occur when you don’t have as much social interaction as you would like or even after a major life transition – such as divorce, death, a move, or even quarantine due to COVID-19. Loneliness is something you feel, and may be outwardly expressed through sadness, anger, withdrawal, or a variety of other outward emotions. Social isolation, though, is someone who has little contact with other people on a regular basis. Someone can feel lonely but not be socially isolated, and someone else could be socially isolated, but not feel lonely. These concepts do not always go hand-in-hand, but many times they do. These concepts are not experienced only by older adults, but there is heightened concern for this population.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 28 percent of older adults in the United States live alone – that’s 13.8 million older adults. This does not imply that they feel lonely or are socially isolated, but the sheer numbers indicate that older adults, particularly those who live alone, are certainly at higher risk of both. So, what can we do?

Extension professionals can continue to check-in on folks in your communities, and encourage family members, neighbors, and others to do the same. As things progress to our new normal, inspire our communities to come back together and revive those meaningful connections that we had to so abruptly pause. Also, work with our community partners to re-ignite those positive social connections that help individuals, families, and communities thrive.  Personally, be sure to check-in with your loved ones, neighbors, and friends at least once or twice a week; this frequency of connection has been shown to reduce the risk of loneliness and depression among older adults. Make it a priority and stick with it.

Although so much fantastic outreach has been accomplished, and is ongoing, through online/social media efforts, don’t forget to reach out to our non-digital audiences. Connect with local organizations – such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Centers, Co-Ops, and others – to send information, news and updates, helpful tips, or a simple hello. Let people know that Extension is still here to serve and we’re still thinking about them – even if they can’t be a frequently seen face in the community just yet.

For immediate mental-health related help, remember the following resources are available:

  • Call 911 if you suspect a situation is potentially life-threatening.
  • Encourage the use of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
  • To get information on mental health and locate treatment services in your area, call 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727)
  • Check out the Kansas Ag Stress Resources website at: kansasagstress.org.

Stay safe, be well, and remember to connect.

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