For many older Americans, loneliness and isolation were already a problem. The covid-19 pandemic and its associated lockdowns have often increased that sense of isolation, especially at holiday time when visits by family would be most welcome.
This year, news and social media have been filled with images of families standing outside nursing facilities, trying to communicate with their relatives through closed windows and cell phones.
"We've all seen images of family members who were not able to visit their loved ones in assisted or skilled nursing facilities or the hospital during this time of physical distancing," said Brittney Schrick, assistant professor and extension family life specialist for the University of Arkansas System Agriculture Division.
"Ultimately, the pandemic has made worse an issue that was already bad," she said. "In addition to limiting visitation within families, the pandemic shut down gatherings like churches and clubs and most other ways that people would meet regularly."
And it's not just older people.
The American Psychological Association's Stress in America poll found that found that 78% of adults say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 60% say the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them.
When asked specifically about covid, the average reported stress level for U.S. adults related to the coronavirus pandemic was 5.9 out of 10. When asked to rate their stress level in general, the average reported stress level for U.S. adults was 5.4. The American Psychological Association says this marks the first significant increase in average reported stress since the survey began in 2007.
"This survey confirms what many mental health experts have been saying since the start of the pandemic: Our mental health is suffering from the compounding stressors in our lives," Arthur C. Evans Jr., The American Psychological Association's chief executive officer, said.
The pandemic has also put a hold on holiday visits. Schrick said her family's planned reunions keep getting postponed, with plans for visits during spring break, summer break and Thanksgiving all being put on hold.
All of this not only can intensify feelings of loneliness but also can have physical impacts as well.
"Social isolation increases a person's risk of premature death as much as, if not more than, smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity," Schrick said. "Social isolation significantly increases a person's risk of developing dementia. Loneliness is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
"Physical illness and chronic conditions such as heart failure are worsened and more likely to be fatal among patients who experience loneliness," she said.
What can families do?
"Families have had to make lots of creative choices about how to stay in touch during the pandemic in order to keep each other safe," Schrick said.
"Where there are limited ways to interact safely in person, there are lots of very safe ways to interact virtually," she said. "Zoom and other online meeting programs; FaceTime, Skype and similar programs; chat and forums for people with similar interests; social media; [and] interactive picture frames.
"There are lots of options, but having access to technology, including knowing how to use it, is key," Schrick said. "If you have access but lack knowledge, ask a family member or friend to coach you through."
Other tactics include:
mArrange a "driveway visit" with family or friends. Be sure all are wearing masks, sit six feet apart, all outdoors.
• Join your "bubble" with someone else who is alone: "If you and a neighbor or friend are both isolated and not interacting with anyone else, you should be able to safely meet together with minimal precautions," Schrick said. "If either one of you is meeting with others, this increases risk, and all precautions should be taken."
The Cooperative Extension Service has many resources to help individuals and families cope with stress. People may contact a local county extension office or visit www.uaex.edu/health-living/personal-family-well-being/.
If you or someone you know needs immediate help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255, chat online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call 911.
To learn more about extension and research programs in Arkansas, visit https://division.uaex.edu/. Follow the agency on Twitter at @AgInArk, @uaex_edu or @ArkAgResearch.
Mary Hightower is with the University of Arkansas System Agriculture Division.