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5 Tips for Dealing With Social Isolation


Human contact is a fundamental need often overlooked by our healthcare system. As our society becomes increasingly disconnected, experts are becoming more aware of the impact of isolation on health. Is loneliness the next epidemic?

“Some of my patients are really isolated. In many of the rural communities that I work in, I visit people that have spent their entire lives there. They’re very used to being isolated. But as they’ve aged, it becomes a challenge that I don’t think they ever could have imagined.”

Antoinette McMillan, Prospero Health social worker

Although it’s possible to feel perfectly content when you’re on your own, more than one out of three adults say that they feel lonely, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). These feelings of isolation can have a significant impact. Here’s more on the dire situation and how we can begin to make change now.

Effects of Social Isolation

A 2010 study by PLOS Medicine journal determined that isolation can be just as bad for your health as smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. Loneliness can lead to a number of mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. In older adults, social isolation can ultimately lead to dementia and other cognitive problems. 

What many of us don’t realize is that isolation affects not only the brain, but also the body. The National Institute on Aging reports that people who are lonely have a higher risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. They are also more likely to need to visit the emergency room or be admitted to a nursing home. Ultimately, people who are lonely often end up dying earlier than those who are more socially connected, according to a study by the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Why Do So Many People Feel Isolated?

Older man sitting and staring at laptop with his hand on his forehead

It seems counterintuitive with all the technology we have as a society, connecting people across cities and continents. Social media, smartphones, and video chat technology make it so easy to keep in touch. So why is loneliness at an all-time high?

The cause of social isolation is multifaceted. COVID-19 certainly complicated the situation. But the social isolation problem existed long before the pandemic brought lockdowns and distrust into our lives. 

Many aspects of our modern world make it difficult for people to connect. Situations like caring for an older adult, unemployment, or lack of transportation can limit a person’s social circle. Other barriers to meeting up with friends and family may include depression, domestic violence, or chronic illness. 

As baby boomers age, we have more people over the age of 65 than ever before. Loneliness is especially a problem for seniors, who are more likely to be isolated, indicating that loneliness is going to be a growing problem for our society. Although access to communications technology has improved, CDC research shows that older adults often have a harder time staying connected because of problems like memory loss, changes in mobility, and declining vision or hearing. 

Tips for Overcoming Social Isolation

Older lady sitting on the bed speaking to a younger lady sitting on the floor

Luckily, there are several resources and strategies that can help individuals overcome loneliness. Give one or more of these solutions a try to help make the next chapters as good as they can be.

  1. Schedule time to catch up with family or friends: In a busy world, socialization may not be happening as often as it used to. Planning ahead makes it easier! Try meeting up with loved ones in person by going for a walk or organizing a game night. Schedule a call or video chat, or write a letter or email. Having a set plan makes everyone more likely to follow through.
  2. Adopt a pet: Animals can make fantastic companions. Try talking to your local humane society to see if they have any potential pets who are feeling lonely. Or, for a lower-commitment option, try volunteering at a local animal shelter. Several studies have shown that hanging out with a furry, four-legged friend can reduce loneliness and depression, boost mood, and make you a healthier person.
  3. Find new activities to join: People who are isolated often have little reason to leave the house. Pursuing a hobby or volunteering for an important cause can add variety to your day. Joining a group like a book club, church, or social club helps people live longer lives, according to a 2016 study by BMJ Open. Being active can help you meet others, learn new things, and feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
  4. Take care of your health: When health problems build up, it’s easy to pull away from others. This can start a vicious cycle — the worse you feel, the more isolated you may become; the more isolated you are, the worse your health gets. You are more likely to eat a poor diet, not get enough exercise, and develop sleep problems.  Ask your doctor for specific ways to better meet your health needs. For extra help, you may want to try a home-based care service. If it’s hard to check in with doctors, ask whether any technology may help. More doctors than ever are offering telehealth or virtual visit options. Getting a better handle on your wellbeing will help you feel less overwhelmed and more in control.
  5. Find someone to check in on you regularly: Unexpected problems can pop up at any time. Knowing that someone is going to be checking on you regularly may offer you a little peace. Asking a family member, friend, or neighbor to stop by every so often can help overall wellbeing. You can also try looping in a home health service like Prospero. Our teammates provide medical care, but also provide necessary human contact and helpful resources. Prospero’s McMillan says she often connects people to resources they may not know about: “I have a patient in her 90’s that lives in a small county. I helped her set up a daily call through the Area Agency on Aging. A police officer calls her every morning to check in on her.” 

You Don’t Have to Face Isolation Alone

In addition to the suggestions above, we have seen the importance of building a relationship with people and their loved ones in the home. Nothing beats the impact of being known and cared for when combating isolation. When we can’t be there face-to-face, Prospero’s after-hours care team serves as an additional resource for isolated patients.

“I can’t thank you enough for the calls in the evening. Sometimes I am so lonely and down, and then the nurse calls me. It’s like an angel that brightens up my day and mood.”

a Prospero patient

Remember: you don’t have to bear the burden of social isolation alone. Although it can feel increasingly challenging these days to keep in touch, you have options. By following some of the helpful tips, and remembering you’re not the only one feeling isolated, you will be well on your way to a healthier and happier life. When you connect with others, you could be helping relieve someone else’s loneliness, too.

Sources:

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. 29 April 2021. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html
  2. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS Med. 2010;7(7):e1000316. 
  3. National Institute on Aging. Loneliness and Social Isolation – Tips for Staying Connected. 14 January 2021. Available from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/loneliness-and-social-isolation-tips-staying-connected 
  4. Alcaraz KI, Eddens KS, Blase JL, et al. Social Isolation and Mortality in US Black and White Men and Women. Am J Epidemiol. 2019;188(1):102-109. 
  5. Hess-Holden CL, Monaghan CL, Justice CA. Pet Bereavement Support Groups: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals. J Creat Ment Health. 2017;12(4):440-450. 
  6. Bao KJ, Schreer G. Pets and Happiness: Examining the Association between Pet Ownership and Wellbeing. Anthrozoös. 2016;29(2):283-296. 
  7. Steffens NK, Cruwys T, Haslam C, Jetten J, Haslam SA. Social group memberships in retirement are associated with reduced risk of premature death: evidence from a longitudinal cohort study. BMJ Open. 2016;6(2):e010164. 

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