Social Isolation and Loneliness Among San Francisco Bay Area Older Adults During the COVID-19 Shelter-in-Place Orders.
J Am Geriatr Soc. 2021 01 ;69(1):20-29. Epub 2020 Oct 9. PMID: 32965024
Ashwin A Kotwal
BACKGROUND/OBJECTIVES: Physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic may have unintended, detrimental effects on social isolation and loneliness among older adults. Our objectives were to investigate (1) experiences of social isolation and loneliness during shelter-in-place orders, and (2) unmet health needs related to changes in social interactions.
DESIGN: Mixed-methods longitudinal phone-based survey administered every 2 weeks.
SETTING: Two community sites and an academic geriatrics outpatient clinical practice.
PARTICIPANTS: A total of 151 community-dwelling older adults.
MEASUREMENTS: We measured social isolation using a six-item modified Duke Social Support Index, social interaction subscale, that included assessments of video-based and Internet-based socializing. Measures of loneliness included self-reported worsened loneliness due to the COVID-19 pandemic and loneliness severity based on the three-item University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Loneliness Scale. Participants were invited to share open-ended comments about their social experiences.
RESULTS: Participants were on average aged 75 years (standard deviation = 10), 50% had hearing or vision impairment, 64% lived alone, and 26% had difficulty bathing. Participants reported social isolation in 40% of interviews, 76% reported minimal video-based socializing, and 42% minimal Internet-based socializing. Socially isolated participants reported difficulty finding help with functional needs including bathing (20% vs 55%; P = .04). More than half (54%) of the participants reported worsened loneliness due to COVID-19 that was associated with worsened depression (62% vs 9%; P < .001) and anxiety (57% vs 9%; P < .001). Rates of loneliness improved on average by time since shelter-in-place orders (4-6 weeks: 46% vs 13-15 weeks: 27%; P = .009), however, loneliness persisted or worsened for a subgroup of participants. Open-ended responses revealed challenges faced by the subgroup experiencing persistentloneliness including poor emotional coping and discomfort with new technologies.
CONCLUSION: Many older adults are adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions since the start of shelter-in-place orders. Additional steps are critically needed to address the psychological suffering and unmet medical needs of those with persistent loneliness or barriers to technology-based social interaction.