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Ageing and loneliness in the era of social distancing

By on April 24, 2020

By the end of April, Canadians will be rounding the corner into about the seventh week of government -directed self-isolation to help combat the exponential growth of COVID-19 across the country. For some, this has been, at most, an inconvenience and while remaining under a form of lockdown with family or a close friend is challenging, it can be manageable. For others, the isolation and resulting loneliness is much more punishing. Most at risk in the era of social distancing are the more vulnerable members of society and, ironically, the precautions that have been put in place to keep them safe are the very ones that are having the most impact on their mental well-being.

While the focus on this issue has increased over the last month or two, it is important to recognize that the “loneliness epidemic” was already a growing concern for the elderly well before the first confirmed case of COVID-19. In March, the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) released a report on loneliness in the era of social distancing which discusses how loneliness can negatively impact the personal, economic, social and even physical well-being of seniors. Multiple research studies have found a connection between loneliness in older adults and poor health outcomes, including increased risk of coronary heart disease, stroke and dementia, with a marked increase in mortality by 26 percent. 

What can we as family, friends, caregivers, and as a society do to help? This question is even more urgent now in the face of this pandemic and the rigorous quarantine protocols in place. Seniors in care homes across the country are now under lockdown, many with restrictions requiring them to stay in their rooms. The mental stimulation once provided by regular visitors, communal meals and activities has been removed, with the resulting isolation causing significant distress. Even telephone calls are difficult for some if there is dementia, hearing loss, or other physical disabilities. 

With this in mind, people are discovering ways to support those who feel isolated in this pandemic, with technology-based, virtual companionship becoming commonplace. Video conferencing tools are being used by some care homes to set up family visits, while families and friends who are isolating at home are hosting virtual dinners and parties. These solutions can help, but they are not the forever answer. 

Moving forward, we must address the scarcity of solutions to mitigate the repercussions of isolation. A fragmented and incomplete stakeholder ecosystem has enabled scattered efforts and a disconnection among operations, solutions, and interventions. No single organization can solve this issue alone; concerted collaboration will be absolutely crucial in protecting our most vulnerable now, and in the future.