4 Tips to Help Your Loved One Overcome Social Isolation

It’s vital for older adults to stay connected despite Covid-19 restrictions and other barriers.

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- Posted on Jun 15, 2021

A woman teaching a senior man to use a laptop; Getty Images

Abigail Carney is the Center Director for the Gunning Park location of the Rose Centers for Aging Well with Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging

Social isolation is an issue that’s come to the forefront as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. For older adults, these restrictions have added to already existing barriers to remaining connected with others. The detrimental effects of being isolated at home have become ever more apparent since the pandemic began. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extended periods of social isolation have led to more hospitalizations of older adults because of health issues, as well as a rise in depression and anxiety disorders among all age groups, particularly those who are older. Covid-19 restrictions contributed, as well, to higher-than-ever stress levels, while simultaneously reducing access to services and personal networks that caregivers and their older loved ones have traditionally turned to for respite and to connect with others.  

Although Covid-19 has added to this serious issue and brought it more into the open, older adults already faced barriers to remaining socially connected. Among the most common are: limited transportation options, a need for access to and better understanding of technology, shrinking support networks and fewer social options. The good news is that you can do much to help your loved one stay connected with friends and family members, as well as the larger community. The pandemic has required us to creatively deal with challenges of social isolation. The following tips offer some ways to break through the barriers that older adults face:

  1. Reduced access to transportation

Many older adults are unable to get around because they don’t have a vehicle, can no longer drive safely or simply prefer alternate forms of transportation. On top of these issues, Covid-19 closures and restrictions have further reduced travel possibilities.

If this is a challenge your loved one faces, you might want to set aside one or two evenings every week to run errands together, have dinner at your place or simply get some fresh air in a nice setting. When you make this a regular date, you not only ensure that your loved one gets out and about as needed, but you give him or her activities to look forward to.

If you are unable to commit to this on a regular basis, explore community resources that offer affordable transportation services to older adults. These services will allow your loved one to safely enjoy things like shopping and socializing.

  1. Difficulties using technology

The pandemic has emphasized the “Digital Divide” that already existed between older adults and members of younger generations when it comes to navigating technology. As people everywhere have had to rely on platforms like Facebook, Zoom, Facetime and texting in order to stay in contact, many older adults face even more serious hurdles to connecting.

To help your loved one get more comfortable using technology, spend a little time with him or her to demonstrate basic phone texting functions and practice answering Facetime calls to video chat with the family. You might also try technologies that are user-friendly for older adults, such as the Grandpad tablet or Jitterbug phone. Another resource for technology education you may not be aware of is your local library! Most libraries have technology courses, access to computers and hired technology teachers that can assist your older loved one in connecting with family and friends. You may also find this sort of help at your local senior center.

  1. Shrinking support networks

As people get older, their support systems tend to shrink. Retirement can cut them off from work friends and colleagues, they may move away from a familiar environment to be closer to family or to transition to a more age-friendly living space, and they lose friends when they pass away. The pandemic has also kept older adults apart from family, friends and service providers they’ve relied on.

With diminishing support systems, it is important for older adults to nurture the relationships that remain. They can be encouraged to stay connected to friends while remaining socially distanced by making a phone call to someone they miss, writing a letter to an old friend, or by arranging a safe get-together following CDC guidelines. If your loved one is missing someone who has passed away, it may be soothing to go through old photos together and share happy recollections of the person. 

  1. Senior center closures

Maybe your loved one used to enjoy getting together with friends at a community senior center to play bingo or stretch in the morning. Covid-19 has required senior centers to close for activities, but that hasn’t prevented many of them from operating creatively. A number of centers have added virtual activities to their services in response to Covid-19 closures. A number of centers are also shifting activities outdoors, helping to reduce the risk of exposure. Get in touch with your local senior center to find out about the activities that are currently available.

Aside from pandemic restrictions, your loved one may face other barriers to staying connected. If this is the case, you could fall back on adaptive solutions you’ve learned as a result of Covid-19. Fun in-home activities and virtual technologies can be good ways to keep your loved one active and engaged in a variety of circumstances.

The health effects of social isolation have been shown to include increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety, according to the CDC. So it’s important to prioritize socialization for your loved one, just as you do with other day-to-day care needs. As the landscape of life continually changes, it will serve both you and your loved one to remain creative in how you overcome barriers to staying connected with others.

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