After sheltering in place for months, running into someone familiar in a grocery store has become a social event for Lois Kincaid.
“My life has changed drastically since March,” she said. “Usually, I’d see friends at least twice a week and go to classes to exercise. Now I have no social contact at all.”
Kincaid is not alone in her isolation. In fact, she said she doesn’t know anyone who isn’t in this situation.
“It’s challenging,” she said. “We don’t have social interaction, we don’t have comradeship, we can’t meet, we can’t be together.”
Sarah Koogle, clinical manager at the Fairbanks Community Mental Health Center, said that more and more of her clients report feeling socially isolated.
The trend, as does the COVID-19 pandemic, runs wider than Fairbanks or Alaska and affects people across various ages and nationalities. But it does seem to hit the older generation more since they need to be careful following physical distancing rules, Koogle said.
Whether overall loneliness levels increased during the pandemic is an open question, but according to the recent National Poll on Healthy Aging, there has been a spike in the older generation.
Both Koogle and Kincaid point out that we can only analyze the state of the people who reach out for help and stay in touch — something that is hard to do during the pandemic when in-person contact is a source of danger and phone conversations don’t feel the same.
“There are a lot of people who aren’t doing anything because they are quite frankly afraid for their lives,” Kincaid said. “And some people are, let’s say, not phone friendly. They don’t answer the phone, and we don’t know how all this affects them.”
If seniors fear to leave home, it makes sense that the Mental Health Center has not seen an increase in older clients, Koogle said. She added that telehealth appointments are not the best solution for older people since they often don’t know how to use Zoom and don’t like phone therapy sessions where they can’t see their therapist’s body language.
“They want to have their in-person appointments,” she said. “That’s what the older population does, and that’s not something they can do now.”
On the bright side, not every senior who is isolated at home needs mental support: being socially isolated does not always equate to loneliness. Some people might cope well with spending time on their own and enjoy their solitude, neuroscientist and social psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad wrote in an email to the News-Miner.
Still, she said that isolation from others increases the risk for loneliness, and loneliness, in turn, increases the risk of poorer mental, cognitive and physical health — and even of premature death.
Looking at the connection between loneliness and mortality, Holt-Lunstad conducted several meta-analyses. After analyzing more than 200 studies that involved more than 3.4 million individuals, she came to a conclusion that weak social relationships, living alone and feeling lonely can all harm our health and lead to premature death.
Another researcher speaking about the negative health consequences of loneliness is Marla Berg-Weger, who is an expert on geriatrics, a science dealing with the health and care of old people. She pointed out that lonely seniors have higher chances to experience hypertension, obesity and dementia.
“Loneliness is equivalent to 15 cigarettes in terms of health damage to older adults,” she said. “The more isolated and lonely you become, the worse your health gets.”
Berg-Weger explained that loneliness causes stress, which in turn makes us more suspicious and irritable. When that happens, we might start perceiving others as a threat and jump to a fight or flight response, and for the senior population, flight is much more common of these two, Berg-Weger said. This means that lonely seniors withdraw and focus on their perceived loneliness, not making the situation better.
“The less stimulation you have, the more your reality becomes distorted, and then you create your own reality,” she explained. “ It’s a vicious cycle.”
To break the cycle, one solution would be to reach out for help, and in the pandemic reality this means breaking the technological gap.
At the time when phone conversations and video calls have become not only a solution to access services, but also to feel more connected to others, it might be crucial for seniors to learn to use the technology — of course if they have access to it. One option to become more technologically savvy is to look for resources in local organizations, for example on the website of the University of Alaska that offers instructions for using the program for video calls Zoom.
Another plus is in staying connected, seniors don’t have to learn to participate in crowded Zoom meetings or download complicated software.
“They don’t need to be IT professionals; they just need the basics,” Berg-Weger said. “When it comes to technology, we just gotta be really creative. Please don’t forget that phones are wonderful mechanisms for communication, as well as letter writing.”
Berg-Weger added that to fully address the loneliness situation, we have to address it on the community and individual levels. It takes a doctor or a nurse during a health check to ask seniors how connected they are. It takes knowing the patient well enough to pick the right way to ask. It takes responsibility and care to follow up on the information and look into what causes loneliness.
“We just have to keep at it in terms of trying to stay connected,” she said. “Some of it is also the responsibility of family and friends, some of it on the older adults themselves. We just have to keep at it.”
To approach the situation from a different perspective, Holt-Lunstad said that the best thing someone who needs support can do is becoming a source of support to others.
“Providing support, volunteering, serving others not only helps others but can be even more beneficial than receiving support,” she wrote. “It increases a sense of connection to others, a sense of meaning and purpose in life and reduces loneliness.”
During the pandemic, this can mean sewing masks, community gardening, teaching grandchildren online English or chess, and calling to check up on others, she added.
Koogle suggested seniors who feel lonely to find ways to socialize as much as they can and maintain healthy routines such as getting enough sleep, food and exercise.
“Just make sure you are staying active,” she said. “It’s so easy to stay at home and curl into a ball on the couch.”
In the meantime, Kincaid has her own solution to get through the isolation of the pandemic: an approach she calls the three Fs: “My faith, my family, and my friends — that’s what ties it all together.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal