By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Loneliness is not good for your health.
In fact, the US Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy’s recent report “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” states that it “is far more than just a bad feeling — it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death.”
The general surgeon goes on to add: “The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society that lacks social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces and civic organizations, where performance, productivity and engagement are diminished.”
Ann E. Cunningham, executive director of Oasis Rochester, agrees.
“The physical and health implications of loneliness are huge,” she said. “At a state level, the governor has put together a task force on aging and that’s an area that’s being looked at: to reduce social isolation and increase our connections with each other.
“Coming out of the pandemic, we know the impact on our students was huge and the impact on older adults has been monumental. We’re seeing it here. I’ve seen people who’ve aged so much more quickly during the pandemic because they didn’t have that contact with others like they did. It’s a huge issue right now that many of us in the aging profession working with older adults we’re trying to tackle.”
Although delivery services helped people stay supplied and fed during the pandemic, it also isolated them. And since then, many of these services have become more routine, promoting continued isolation. These newer supports differ from some that were popular pre-COVID-19. For example, Meals on Wheels provides a point of connection for older adults, as delivery drivers take a moment to chat and get to know the recipients. That’s not part of the job of food delivery drivers for Grubhub or Instacart to make those connections.
Area organizations have stepped up to help older adults combat loneliness. Oasis Rochester is one longstanding example.
“We bring people together around a shared love for a certain topic, like history, crafts, music, dance or exercise,” Cunningham said. “It serves two purposes. It’s not only about lifelong learning but a quest for connections with each other.”
Despite this, Cunningham said that some older adults still do not want to risk mingling because of COVID-19. To meet their needs and the needs of those who no longer drive, Oasis offers online classes which at least allow participants to interact virtually.
Bryan Guzski, doctor of physical therapy, nutrition coach and owner of Motive Physical Therapy in Rochester, has also linked loneliness with physical inactivity, especially for older adults whose muscle strength and physical endurance deplete at a more rapid rate than younger people.
“The more socially isolated someone is, the less everyday activity that person will have,” he said. “The pandemic clearly demonstrated this. With the cancellation of community events, group exercise classes, and closing of fitness centers, dramatic drops in daily activity coexisted with feelings of social isolation and loneliness.”
Even worse is that it’s typically even tougher for older adults to regain physical strength and vitality once it’s lost compared with younger adults.
Guzski recommends seeking programs that offer both movement and camaraderie.
“Group exercise classes at fitness centers or community centers, as well as programs like Silver Sneakers, are incredibly beneficial as they promote social interaction and physical activity, a win-win,” Guzski said.
Local YMCA chapters, fitness classes at a gym, neighborhood walking groups, dance classes, bowling leagues or other group-oriented clubs can also help.