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Quarantined seniors face unseen dangers

April 05, 2020 | Long Term Care

A photo of an older woman gazing out of a window with natural filtered light.

With an increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that adults 60 and older "stay at home as much as possible." But, studies show that isolation and loneliness can cause seniors physical and mental harm. In fact, it can be more harmful to a person’s well-being than obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Why loneliness is lethal

The first step in finding solutions is to understand that loneliness and social isolation are related, but different problems, says Dr. Christopher Lim, M.D., Senior Clinical Advisor, Aetna Medicare. Isolation is objective and can be measured by factors like the size of a person’s social network. In contrast: Loneliness is a subjective and personal feeling. Both are common among older adults.

A 2020 study found that nearly a quarter of Americans aged 65 and older are socially isolated, and some 43% of adults aged 60 or older report feeling lonely. Add on the isolation felt with the pandemic, and these people face increased risk for heart attack, stroke, or even reduced antiviral protections that are so important right now.

“Loneliness is not a normal state of being for a human,” says Lim. “Biologically, we depend on others to survive in the world.”

Making connections

Fortunately, there are ways we can all help older adults stay connected while respecting social distancing:

  • Resources For Living consultants call at-risk seniors identified by the Social Isolation Index to offer customized local solutions, such as food delivery.

  • SilverSneakers, now offers members age-appropriate online video workouts from home.

  • Papa, Inc. program connects college students and seniors through “Assistance from a Distance” to encourage positive thinking, help with ordering groceries and medicines and explaining telehealth tools.

  • Through an Aetna Foundation grant, the Meals on Wheels program is developing a training curriculum to teach seniors how to use technology to make online connections.

Dr. Robert Mirsky, Chief Medical Officer, Aetna, talking with an older woman outdoors.
Dr. Robert Mirsky, Chief Medical Officer of Aetna.

“We are continuing to look holistically at our social connectedness offerings to build out a variety of approaches to identify and support our members who are lonely or isolated,” says Dr. Robert Mirsky, Chief Medical Officer for Aetna Medicare.

You can help, too. Consider adding your neighbor’s shopping list to your own. Call your elderly relatives to remind them they aren’t alone. Schedule a virtual visit between your children and parents. The connections you make during this time could be lifesaving.


Help older adults stay connected

  • Make a plan how to social distance and sanitize their home. Update phone numbers for pharmacy and other home deliveries.

  • Schedule regular phone calls and video chats.

  • Organize a virtual game night using online board games or set up identical game boards and use a speaker phone.

  • Create a virtual book club or have grandparents read bedtime stories.

  • Host a long-distance dinner party with meal delivery and phone or video conversation.