Extended Shelter-in-Place for Seniors Poses Health Dangers from Loneliness

By Ed Kimble

Brace yourselves, fellow seniors. All this talk of reopening the country as COVID-19 subsides may sound encouraging, but it doesn’t apply to you. That’s right. If you’re over 60, you’re going to be sheltering in place a LOT longer than everyone else.

Under the Opening Up America Again plan the White House released last week to guide states in relaxing stay-at-home orders, seniors and other vulnerable people are advised to “continue to shelter in place” for the first two of the three graduated phases of re-opening. Each phase lasts a minimum of 14 days.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has said he intends to follow the White House guidelines but hasn’t set a date for the state to start the reopening phases. The governor’s initial stay-at-home order that began March 31 expires April 30. The guidelines specify testing and hospital readiness thresholds for entering Phase 1 that may not be met by Arizona by May 1. But whatever date Ducey allows the state to start Phase 1, seniors will need stay home AT LEAST 28 MORE DAYS.

Such a protracted period of self-isolation may pose considerable dangers to the physical and emotional health of seniors, especially for those predisposed to loneliness. Paula Span writing for the New York Times in an April article titled “Just What Older People Didn’t Need: More Isolation” summarized a growing body of research on the negative consequences of loneliness and why seniors living alone are particularly susceptible.

“It’s associated with significantly higher rates of heart disease and stroke and a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, the National Academies report pointed out. Isolated or lonely seniors report a greater incidence of depression and anxiety,” Span wrote.

John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, University of Chicago, explains in this TEDx video, “The Lethality of Loneliness” that loneliness increases an individual’s odds of an early death by 45 percent – more than living with air pollution (5%), obesity (20%) or excessive alcohol consumption (30%).

The AARP Foundation’s 2018 Loneliness and Social Connection Survey found that one in three Americans over 45 reported feeling lonely and that number rises to half for LGBTQ older adults:

“The results indicate loneliness has approximately the same incidence across race and ethnicity. New in this year’s study is the finding that LGBTQ status plays a role in loneliness. Midlife and older adults who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to be lonely (49%) compared to those who do not (35%).”

Though many experts are quick to point out that physical isolation and loneliness are not the same thing, the AARP study found that isolation is the most significant predictor of loneliness. Depression and anxiety are also predictors of loneliness, but not as much as physical isolation.

The Pew Research Center reported last month that 27 percent of Americans over 60 live alone, which is the highest rate in the world.

LGBTQ elders are twice as likely to be single and live alone than the general population, according to a 2011 national health study co-authored by the Center for American Progress and Services and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Elders (SAGE).

Are you lonely? If you are, what should you do about it? And what CAN you do about it if you’re stuck in your home alone and can’t access social resources?

It’s possible to be suffering from loneliness without being consciously aware of it. The UCLA Loneliness Scale is a 20-question survey developed for social scientists in the 1970s and used in 80% of loneliness studies since then. You can access an auto-scored online version of the survey here. Take the test to explore your risk of loneliness.

Professor Cacioppo’s TEDx video emphasizes how cultivating even just one strong social relationship can counteract the toxic physical effects of loneliness. Having a companion to talk to, confide in and do activities with can literally save your life.

That’s where programs like Southern Arizona Senior Pride’s Connect Now service come in. Launched in response to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, Connect Now! offers short-term telephone support for homebound LGBTQ+ seniors during this difficult time. Call 520-312-8923 or request Connect Now! support through our online contact form.

Senior Pride also provides long-term one-on-one support through our Community Cares program which matches volunteers to isolated LGBTQ elders for weekly visits, telephone calls and other activities. Call 520-351-2724 to get started with this program for yourself or to refer someone you know. Community Cares volunteers are available for residents in senior living centers as well as individuals in their own homes.

Pima Council on Aging (PCOA) https://www.pcoa.org/ways-we-help/ has a variety of programs to help seniors, their caregivers and neighbors. Call their Helpline at (520) 790-7262.

The Institute on Aging operates a 24-hour toll free Friendship Line at 800-971-0016. The Line is an accredited crisis line for people aged 60 years and older, which also makes on-going outreach calls to lonely older adults.

The LGBT National Senior Hotline 888-234-7243 provides telephone peer-support and resource information. The LGBT Senior Hotline is a project of SAGE USA. Hours of operation and email contact are listed here.