By Elizabeth Townsend, RN
People are social beings. With COVID-19 introducing social distancing guidelines and restrictions on visitations, social isolation and loneliness are increasing. A report referenced by JAMA discussed the need for solutions for social isolation and loneliness in older adults. There is significant documentation that social isolation and loneliness are related to a higher rate of major mental and physical illnesses, including:
- Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular risks
- More depression and anxiety
- An increased risk of dementia
According to the National Institute on Aging, people who participate in worthwhile activities with others tend to live longer and have a sense of purpose.
Assessing seniors for isolation and loneliness
COVID-19 has made it difficult for seniors to participate in:
- Social gatherings
- Communal dining
- Exercising in groups
- Social programs at senior centers
Home health clinicians assess patients for social isolation and loneliness. Asking patients about their social needs is important to identify who needs assistance, easing isolation and loneliness. The home health agency provides tools or guidelines with questions for the clinicians to ask. Examples of questions to ask:
- Do you feel you have no friends or loved ones?
- Are you lonely?
- How are you staying active?
5 ways to relieve isolation and loneliness
After assessing and finding that your patient is suffering from social isolation, consult with their caregivers and healthcare team —specifically the agency’s social worker—to find ways to relieve their isolation. Daily Caregiving suggests some ways to help:
- Encourage a sense of purpose. Suggest activities such as knitting blankets and caps for newborns at a local hospital, making masks for healthcare workers or family members, or writing letters to their grandchildren to encourage them. Allow the patient to have a responsibility, such as taking care of a plant or dog. This would be giving them a meaningful purpose.
- Encourage interaction. Encourage interaction with others via phone, computer, or if in person, socially distant, wearing a mask.
- Encourage physical activity. Take Into account the patient’s physical ability. They can do gentle exercises such as walking, stair-climbing, yoga, or group exercises via computer. If they cannot get out of bed or are not able to walk, find appropriate activities. Consult with the physical therapy team who can provide resources for exercises for those with limitations.
- Assess the food they are eating. Encourage fiber-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. Consult with community services such as food banks, churches, or meal delivery services.
- Show them they are loved. Find ways to show that they are loved and needed. Listen to what they have to say. Encourage family members, if they are in the home also, to hug the patient and talk and listen to them.
Social workers can help seniors with social isolation and loneliness
Social workers can ensure that patients have access to available resources. Local churches may have “shut-in” outreach for those unable to leave their homes. They may provide phone calls, run errands, provide food baskets, and communicate by mail with the seniors. Local library programs have online programs and can arrange to have books available for the patient to check out. The social worker can also refer the patient to transportation programs that take seniors to doctor appointments.
Encourage virtual connections for seniors
Advancing States created a resource to help reduce social isolation and loneliness.
- If the patient can use a smartphone, show them how to google Earth National Park Tours so they can “visit” the parks and talk about what they saw with others via telephone or with you when you visit.
- Patients can meditate through Journey Meditation.
- Put the patient in contact with Well Connected by Covia, who will help them participate in virtual classes, conversations, and activities by phone and computer.
There are helplines for mental and emotional support, which include:
- Friendship Line by Institute on Aging- 1(800)971-0016
- Happy– a free app that provides emotional support 24/7
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline- 1(800)950-6264
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline- 1(800)662-4357