Public service announcement: social isolation and loneliness and COVID-19

As a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are required to be less social in order to avoid infecting themselves and others with the virus. With county and state mandates on social distancing and self-quarantining, it will be harder for people to maintain their social connections. Although the implementation of “physical distancing” is necessary to prevent the current pandemic from worsening, the resulting lack of social contact is going to negatively affect those populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness.

For many people this will be a tough but necessary period of social isolation. Many of us will miss seeing family and friends and taking part in our usual interests and activities. We have likely already noticed how important friendship and connection are in our lives, and how difficult it can be when they’re missing. It should remind us that for too many people, their lives are often quite a lot like this.

Research shows that half a million older people regularly experience these kinds of extended periods of isolation, often going at least five or six days a week without seeing or speaking to anyone at all. During the coronavirus outbreak, it’s especially important that we stay in touch with people who are alone. Making sure that you stay in touch with friends, family and neighbors can help ease feelings of loneliness you and others may experience while in isolation.

Ways you can stay in touch include:
• Call your friends, colleagues and relatives regularly on the phone and see how they are.
• Mail letters or cards to family and friends.
• Send text messages or use video chat.
• Create WhatsApp groups with neighbors, family or friends. Share how you’re doing and ask other people how they are.
• Use Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date and stay in touch.
• Offer to help with shopping or running errands. You could use an app like Nextdoor (https://nextdoor.com) to see if your neighbors need assistance. If you’re worried about transmitting the virus you can leave the bags on the doorstep.

For many, the telephone may be the easiest way to keep in contact, as computer and internet technology might be new or difficult to use for some older friends and family. Offer support and help to install and use apps.

When using social media be mindful that this may be a frightening and isolating time for many. Consider your actions and be kind. Offer help where you can, and only share accurate information and advice.

Technology can’t replace the feeling of communicating in person, but it is reassuring to know there are other ways of staying connected in isolation that can help. There is no denying this will be a difficult time. Social distancing measures are necessary to protect people from the worst effects of coronavirus, and this will be temporary. If we make the effort to stay connected, we can make a big difference to people — especially older adults — who are feeling alone at this time.

Want more information on how to help older adults combat loneliness and isolation? Need information to help protect them from scams, fraud and exploitation? The Area Agency on Aging for Southwest Florida provides free presentations on these topics, as well as on how to identify and report elder abuse and neglect. You can schedule a presentation to your group or community by calling the Elder Helpline at 866-413-5337 (866-41-ELDER).

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