COVID-19 Highlighting the Need to Combat Social Isolation

Will the nation’s experience with social isolation during COVD-19 make people more empathetic to the social isolation experienced regularly by many people, and especially older adults? Some cities have recognized this issue for years and have begun to work on the problem.

A 2019 survey by AARP and the University of Michigan showed that one out of three adults over the age of 50 do not have regular companionship and one out of four feel isolated. This problem is even worse for low-income older adults, with nearly half of people earning less than $25,000/year and over the age of 45 feeling lonely.

Many recent publications have documented the health effects of loneliness, which include “an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, dementia, high cholesterol, diabetes, and poor health in general,” according to a 281-page report on social isolation and loneliness in older adults released earlier this year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. People who are lonely are also more likely to use alcohol and tobacco and exercise less, according to the report.

AARP and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been working for years to address social isolation felt by older adults and have developed an Age-Friendly Communities program for cities that want to work on this and other ingredients for improving the quality of life for older adults. AARP lists eight domains of livability for age-friendly communities:

  • Outdoor Spaces and Buildings
  • Transportation
  • Housing
  • Social Participation
  • Respect and Social Inclusion
  • Civic Participation and Employment
  • Communication and Information
  • Community and Health Services

Over 450 U.S. communities have joined AARP’s network of age-friendly communities , many of which have created age-friendly master plans to address the above eight domains.

With older adults being more vulnerable than others during the current pandemic, communities that are already working to engage and serve this population will find more success in preventing related illnesses and mortality. Even during this crisis many communities are finding ways to combat social isolation among not only older adults but other populations as well. Click here to find a set of resources for doing civic engagement during this time.

Certainly, this is not the last disaster we will face as a nation and world. Hopefully this experience with COVID-19 will highlight the need to build civic capital by engaging older adults and other vulnerable populations on a regular basis. The resiliency of a community depends not only on having enough ventilators, but also on the presence of equity, social connections and civic engagement.

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