With the coronavirus pandemic still raging this summer, a senior living facility in North Carolina began posting photos on its Facebook page, each showing a resident holding a sign that listed the person’s first name and hobbies. There was Linda, who likes art, music and reading. Pauline, who enjoys rabbits and the Bible. Alex, who appreciates guitars and old rock music.

There were 20 photos in all. And displayed behind each of the residents was another sign: “Will You Be My Pen Pal?”

It was yet another reminder of the depth and breadth of the COVID-19 crisis.

The public-health aspect is clear and tragic, as evidenced by the mounting numbers of cases and deaths. The economic impact, reflected in staggering unemployment numbers, the shuttering of various businesses and a multitude of other indicators, is severe in and of itself. But the signs held by the folks in North Carolina represented a matter that has long been an issue among seniors — social isolation.

It is a problem that predates the pandemic, but one that has been exacerbated by things like social distancing, quarantines and visitation limits. Such a situation begs for creative solutions like the one conjured up by the staff at that North Carolina facility.

They had a positive result: In just the first two weeks after the pictures were posted, the residents received an estimated 15,000 pieces of mail, many of which included gifts.

The challenge presented by social isolation is, however, ongoing. It is also deep-seated, as indicated by a landmark 2012 study which concluded that 43% of respondents, all 60 or older, felt lonely to some degree. That is despite the fact that just 18% of them lived by themselves, meaning 25% felt the gnawing pain of isolation, even though they lived among others.

Loneliness threatens longevity

Isolation has been shown to have devastating effects on physical and mental health. Researchers have gone so far as to compare the impact to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Vox cited a National Academy of Sciences study from earlier this year that broke it down even further. It concluded that social isolation increased the risk of developing heart disease by 29%, stroke by 32%, dementia by 50% and functional decline by 59%. In addition, a socially isolated person is 25% more likely to die of cancer.

Researchers also saw links between loneliness and such mental-health issues as depression and suicidal thoughts, a conclusion reached long ago by psychotherapist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann (1889-1957). 

Carla Perissinotto, associate chief for geriatrics clinical programs at UC San Francisco and one of the study’s authors, told Vox these conclusions were “astounding” and added, “At any point across the life span, the things we’re most worried about (are) losing our independence, losing our minds and heart attack, and these are all affected by loneliness independent of other risk factors.”

But again, this is a particularly trying time. Seniors were already at increased risk of contracting the virus, but now we must consider the distinct challenges presented by isolation. The Vox author, Ezra Klein, labeled the loneliness epidemic a “social recession.”

Some states, like Minnesota, have begun to allow in-person visits again. And various methods have been devised to break down the barriers that result in seniors being isolated. A facility in Texas, for example, followed the lead of the one in North Carolina by going the pen-pal route.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, five high school students devised COVID Networks, which affords teens the opportunity to connect with seniors in long-term care facilities. The group had forged partnerships with over a dozen facilities as of early August, and had enlisted 20 volunteers.

Some in the group have interviewed residents about their lives. Some have led yoga sessions. And everyone seemed to benefit.

“I remember when we were leading the yoga session and one woman started laughing,” one member of the group, Sivansh Chitti, told the San Jose Mercury News, “and that really made my day — just small moments like that really make this worth it.”

Technology can help

An even larger anti-isolation initiative, Telehealth Access for Seniors, was undertaken by Yale students in March. It endeavors to provide those 65 and over with devices that enable them to connect with physicians, friends and family members. By early August the organization, which operates in 75 facilities scattered over 26 states, had raised $63,000 while enabling some 1,500 seniors to connect.

One of the organization’s state leads, Emory University student Lia Rubel, described the devices as “life-saving” and added, “Addressing social isolation might be as important to our health as the most powerful medicines that ultimately need to be developed for COVID.”

And indeed, technology has played an enormous role in combating this crisis. As an example, consider that before the crisis even began, each of The Allure Group’s 1,500 residents had access to a Samsung tablet at their bedside installed with PadInMotion technology. Those tablets, previously used for entertainment or stress relief, have now become vital for social interaction, providing residents with video or audio links to friends and family members.

Even with all these emerging solutions, the fight to curb seniors’ social isolation rages on, with the questions raised by a Colorado resident named Joanne Ruth particularly poignant.

“Does anybody know I’m alive?” she asked KOAA News5. “Do they care?”

When raised in a larger sense, both questions can be answered in the affirmative: Yes, there are people out there who care, and care deeply, about seniors. Yes, they are devising means to help alleviate their loneliness, which has become that much more acute during the pandemic. Their creativity in doing so, in fact, seems to know no bounds.

The problem, however, is not going away. More people need to join the fray. More creativity is needed. The pandemic may have spotlighted the loneliness epidemic among seniors as a mainstream problem, but we still need to identify and implement mainstream solutions before we can truly solve this insidious issue.

Joel Landau is the founder and chairman of The Allure Group, a rapidly expanding provider of skilled nursing and rehabilitation services throughout the New York downstate area.