Lonely older adults cope during COVID-19

lonely older adult may struggle to find social activities during pandemic
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Loneliness and social isolation can affect anyone regardless of age or background, but research continues to warn of the physical and emotional damage it wreaks on older adults. Although not all seniors may experience chronic bouts of social isolation or loneliness, it is a widespread issue with a harmful impact.

In fact, a recent report states 43 percent of U.S. citizens 60 and older say they are lonely [1]National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020, p.1 . These numbers are expected to rise as the world struggles to contain the coronavirus.

Loneliness can occur whether a person is solitary or not. For example, elderly couples cut off from their usual social groups may feel lonely and more isolated than ever before.

A senior’s health and wellbeing is improved when they are engaged members of society. Yet, many methods lonely older adults used to stay connected just aren’t possible during the pandemic.

Before lonely older adults: 

  • Joined their local senior center
  • Exercised at a local gym
  • Walked in the mall or with a senior walking group 
  • Sang in choir

Older adults’ social circles rapidly evolve with age, so it is essential to forge new bonds, create memories, and strengthen established relationships. Right now, many in-person social activities aren’t offered, but eventually, they will return. Individually, seniors need to decide what is safe for them.

What can older adults do right now to combat loneliness?

older adult stays socially connected through technology: computer and cell phone
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There are a variety of ways seniors can remain connected through COVID-19. Here are three examples that can enrich their social life, help them learn new skills, or provide help to others.

1. Join online events 

Classes with an interactive component allow older adults to “see” and engage with classmates. They may also benefit from educational courses which will help deepen their interest in multiple topics. Companies such as Coursera and edX offer some free options.

Many community organizations have taken to Zoom meetings. Look for exercise classes offered through your local senior center, the public library, or try out Senior Planet’s free online classes.

2. Have virtual meals with family and friends 

Last week, I mentioned video conferencing conversations. It is a wonderful tool that can help older adults interact with their children and grandchildren regardless of distance or risk factors.

Also, consider scheduling game nights, a coffee hour, or a book club with other older adults in the same restricted position.

3. Volunteer 

While this will be more tricky, lonely older adults can feel more connected by helping others. Before COVID-19, many older adults offered up their time to help others. Now, older adults may need to think beyond delivering meals, helping at schools, or as a poll worker. 

Volunteering right now may include making phone calls, tutoring from home, reading to children through video conferencing, or making arts and crafts. Here are some virtual volunteering opportunities in the Greater Boston area.

Other Tips and Resources

  • Help them feel less alone during such an uncertain time. Many of these suggestions include using technology that some older adults aren’t comfortable with. In that case, make sure someone can teach or assist them in using these tools.
  • Help them stay safe online. Keep in mind that seniors in general and isolated ones in particular “are more susceptible to exploitation or abuse (physical, emotional, or financial)” [2]National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2020, p.20.
  • Visit Campaign to End Loneliness guide for more tips.
  • The AARP Community Connections page shows mutual aid groups by location or sign up for a free phone call from AARP staff.

What are you doing differently with the older adults in your life?

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663


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