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Nowhere to go, no one to talk to. Many seniors have sat at home alone during the pandemic. Loneliness affects more than 2 in 5 seniors and COVID-19 has worsened social isolation. At the height of the pandemic, older adults, a high-risk category for COVID-19, were encouraged to limit exposure to people. Now there are vaccines that provide greater protection and allow for more social interaction. However, the prolonged lack of engagement has taken a toll on the mental and physical health of many seniors.

A whole-person care approach is necessary to address the well-being of seniors and help address the loneliness epidemic. Social care partners support seniors by connecting them to services and volunteer phone pals reach out weekly, providing a caring voice and listening ear. One senior said she can sit home all day and the phone never rings. She’s come to expect and enjoy the friendly call from her phone pal.

Participants in such a program were surveyed about their experience from May to June of 2020. They gave high marks for social connections, activities, health engagements, and happiness. Those positive results could help reverse a disturbing trend seen during the pandemic. Our 2021 State of the Nation’s Mental Health Report found a downturn in adults 75 and older being treated for mental health diagnoses  — dropping 5% in 2020 compared to 2019.  The pandemic is the likely explanation for the overall decline. Many seniors were shut in and shut off largely from society. Their normal patterns of care were disrupted, they were less likely to use telehealth services, and some avoided or delayed receiving medical care.

Addressing seniors’ social drivers of health and building personal connections leads to behavior changes that reduce isolation and loneliness. A survey of consumers who receive social support shows: 

  • 78% had more meaningful connections with people.

  • 79% had an increase in activities that bring them joy or sense of purpose.

  • 74% have changed something about how they take care of themselves.

  • 66% were happy or very happy when taking all life aspects into account over a 7-day period during the survey. 

Introducing a supportive person into a senior’s life can help them become more engaged in their overall health. Through trusting conversations with their phone pals, they’ve become more motivated – they’re exercising more, eating healthier, and adhering to their medications. We know loneliness increases the risk of mortality by 45%. That’s why social interactions can be critical to seniors’ overall health and well-being.

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