April 14, 2020

The new coronavirus epidemic has spurred an unprecedented level of social distancing guidelines and shelter-in-place orders that have prompted many community-based organizations to close and skilled nursing facilities and senior living organizations to ban visitors. The result? Millions of seniors across the country alone in their homes—and at an increased risk of social isolation and loneliness.

Advisory Board's take: 3 ways you can limit the effects of social isolation

Communities have stepped up to meet the day-to-day needs of this vulnerable population. In Nevada, a group of college-aged volunteers called "Shopping Angels" provide free grocery deliveries to the sick and elderly. The service, which now spans several states, also helps pay for those who may struggle to pay for essentials. Senior centers are similarly using their staff and volunteers to conduct phone check-ins and food and medication deliveries for seniors in the community.

But food and medication are not the only critical needs of seniors who must remain in their homes for safety. Research has shown that a lack of human interaction increases the risk of social isolation and loneliness, and is associated with higher rates of functional decline, dementia, stroke, and more.

To help seniors feel more connected and facilitate social engagement, senior living organizations and community members are employing creative strategies. Below we round up three key actions your organization can take now to mitigate the effects of social isolation in seniors.

1. Expand access to online platforms to help seniors socialize while practicing social distancing

Online meetings aren't just for work anymore! As many aspects of daily life move to online platforms, senior living organizations are expanding the use of technology to engage residents. Many nursing homes, hospices, and senior living organizations are utilizing tablets and video calling to connect residents with friends and family members.

Some retirement communities, like Hillcrest Retirement Community, are even hosting virtual activities, such as bingo nights and exercise classes through video calls and YouTube. These livestreams provide residents who are now confined to their rooms with social interaction and an opportunity for physical activity.

Other app-based services like Element3 Health, Happy, and YourCoach allow seniors in the community to virtually gather and receive emotional support.

2. Launch a new telephone line for residents who may be less tech savvy

For seniors that struggle to use online platforms to connect with family and friends, call-in programs provide necessary social and emotional resources on a platform seniors know and trust.

NC Aging Baptist Ministry for example operates a toll-free "Hope Line" to help those suffering from social isolation. Trained staff provide spiritual and social support to ease individuals struggling with loneliness.  

AgeOptions, an Illinois-based organization focused on seniors, is also expanding its call-in program "Telephone Topics," which provides entertainment through discussions and live performances to seniors at risk for social isolation.

3. Start a letter writing campaign to keep seniors connected with outside community

Sometimes, helping seniors feel less alone is as simple as picking up a pen and paper.

Legacy Healthcare has piloted a "Letters of Love" pen pal program that encourages community members to share letters and photos with residents in their facilities. Since its launch in March, the program has matched 300 residents with community members.

Similarly, Heart of Hospice-Acadania pairs up school-aged children with their residents and asks the children to share cards and letters.

Why you should act now to protect seniors

Right now, the federal social distancing guidelines are scheduled to continue through the end of April—and depending on where you live in the United States, social distancing efforts could extend into the next few months. That means, at a minimum seniors are looking at an additional two weeks without face-to-face interactions or activities to get them up and moving outside of their rooms, leaving them at a heightened risk of loneliness and other effects of social isolation.

Mitigating those risks should be a top priority for providers and community organizations. Virtual gatherings, app-based services, and community-led efforts that connect seniors with key resources are critical steps both organizations and individuals can take to support seniors.

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