Loneliness and social isolation were widespread problems long before the phrase “social distancing” was introduced into our daily vocabulary. But it’s fair to say that the pandemic has heightened and complicated the issues. We’ve all felt it at some point in the last year and a half. If you think about it for less than a minute, you’ll likely be able to come up with multiple occasions where you were lonely. Now, multiply that times 100 for our older adults and loved ones.

The repercussions of isolation are more serious now than ever. Loneliness is associated with significant health problems, from diabetes to high blood pressure, as well as depression, anxiety, and memory loss. Not exactly something you want to be dealing with, well ever, but especially not during a pandemic. And with winter coming soon – when seniors report more feelings of loneliness than any other time of year – there is an urgency to understand why it happens and how we can help.

What Leads to Isolation?
It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway) that the pandemic has brought its own unique set of isolation problems. And that has impacted seniors, especially. While everyone else was able to adjust to a virtual life online, a lot of older, less tech-savvy people were left out of the loop, making them feel even further isolated.

Now, we’re looking at the onset of winter with its colder temps and shorter daylight hours. Colder weather can lead to dangerous conditions that keep seniors inside – and prevent people from visiting them. The shorter and darker days this time of year can lead to anxiety and depression.

On TV and social media, we see happy families gathered around the fireplace and enjoying one another’s company. But often, seniors who live far away from loved ones – and who may live on limited income – sometimes feel like they don’t have anything to offer, which can make them feel insecure in addition to feeling isolated.

The upcoming holiday season can also be a difficult time for older adults as they look back at losses over the years and are reminded of those who are no longer with them. Even if they do have support, the caregivers can often feel that isolation as well. Caring for a loved one who may be struggling with dementia has its own sort of loneliness that only those who have been there can understand.

What Are the Dangers of Isolation?
There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that suggests when seniors are isolated and experience prolonged feelings of loneliness, their health is directly and negatively affected, both physically and mentally.

Loneliness and isolation trigger the body’s stress response, which can resemble the same sort of reaction that people who are under chronic stress experience. This can lead to inflammation and lower immunity in older adults, which in turn could lead to significant health issues like stroke, heart disease, and even heart failure.

Isolation is a key factor in anxiety and depression, which can lead to poor decision-making. These stress response patterns explain why people who are isolated tend to have poorer attention, reasoning, and memory abilities. Social isolation has been associated with an approximate 50% increased risk of dementia.

But all is not lost. There are things we can do to help.

How to Fight Back Against Loneliness and Isolation
Social activity can have a huge impact for isolated seniors, even if it’s online. A major factor, though, is the quality of the relationships. Maintaining high-quality and meaningful relationships can be key in protecting brain health from the negative impacts of isolation. Studies have shown that satisfying and supportive relationships can lower the risk of dementia in older adults and help guard against a decline in thinking and reasoning abilities.

Strong social ties and satisfying relationships tend to help people cope better with stress – like the stress of isolation and loneliness. In fact, the way seniors manage their relationships, even if they are physically apart, is more important for brain health than the actual face-to-face contact.

At St. John’s Community Care, we offer multiple opportunities for both you and your loved ones to build and maintain social activity and foster those meaningful relationships.

Our Adult Day Services provide a safe and caring environment where your loved one can gather with friends for fun games and engaging activities to stimulate brain health.

Our online Memory Café is great for individuals who are living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), early-stage Alzheimer’s, or other dementia, and their care partners.

Brain Wave is a positive and engaging program for people facing early memory loss. Its comprehensive approach is designed to encourage your loved one to use their brains in new and innovative ways.

And we offer multiple support groups for caregivers to connect with others who are on the same journey. Reach out to St. John’s Community Care for more information about any of our programs in Collinsville and Edwardsville. We are here to help you and your loved one feel less isolated and less alone.