A direct poll of 365 nursing home residents in 36 states reveals a “drastic” reduction in social activities and a steep increase in reported feelings of loneliness during pandemic lockdowns. “Innovative distance socializing” may help address the problem going forward, according to nonprofit healthcare consulting firm Altarum.

The survey, conducted in July and August, asked residents about their participation in social activities before and after COVID-19 restrictions were put in place. They also were asked an open-ended question about how they were coping. 

Among the findings:

  • Fully 64% of residents indicated that they no longer leave their rooms to socialize with other residents.
  • Residents who said they were not participating in nursing home-organized activities such as art classes, resident meetings and religious services rose to 54% compared with 14% before the outbreak.
  • Going outside to enjoy fresh air one or more times a week was reported by 28% of residents, compared with 83% before the outbreak.
  • Most residents (93%) reported that they did not leave their nursing home in a given week for routine activities such as shopping and visiting family, compared with 42% before the outbreak.
  • Half of all respondents said that there are fewer staff members today than there were before the pandemic. (A majority, 57%, said that the quality of care was about the same, and 38% said it had gotten worse.)

Meanwhile, 76% of respondents reported that they felt lonelier under the restrictions. Their answers about coping included responses such as, “If the virus doesn’t kill me, the loneliness will.” Some reported losing weight or requiring new prescriptions of antidepressants.

The survey results are consistent with what is known about isolation and loneliness as a mental health scourge in older adults, the authors said.

“This survey shows that it’s not enough to try to keep residents from being infected; frail elders must have something to live for,” said Anne Montgomery, Altarum’s co-director of the Program to Improve Eldercare. “For many, that means seeing their family and friends, going outside and socializing — all of which can be arranged while social distancing and taking other precautions recommended by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.” 

‘Distance socializing’ a solution?

The report offers facility operators ideas and resource recommendations for making improvements that can reduce the effects of social isolation and loneliness as the pandemic continues. The authors introduce the concept of “distance socializing,” especially through creative online solutions.

“When implemented effectively, innovative distance socializing can be created in the context of social distancing to maintain — and even increase — socialization, with the help of friends, volunteers, and community organizations.”

A link to the full report and detailed recommendations can be found here

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