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During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been asked to shelter in place. For many of us, sheltering in place was a way of life before COVID-19. The Health Resources & Services Administration states that two in five Americans report they sometimes or always feel their social relationships are not meaningful and one in five say they feel lonely or socially isolated. And according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a quarter of the U.S. population (28%) of older adults live alone.

The World Health Organization reports social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem worsens as we get older. Loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. In addition, social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes. Social isolation has been associated with a:

50% increased risk of dementia

29% increased risk of heart disease

32% increased risk of stroke

The late Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, studied the effects of loneliness for two decades before his passing in 2018. After suffering a near-fatal car crash and having what seemed to be a transformative revelation, he concluded that love and social connections are what really matters in life. He equated loneliness with a type of hunger, noting that establishing social connections is essential for human survival. He also believed that chronic loneliness can increase the incidence of early death.

One would think that knowing if we are being affected emotionally or physically from loneliness would be easy for us, loved ones, and our healthcare providers to recognize; however, this is not always the case. Like chronic depression or pain, over time we start thinking and believing it’s just a normal way of life. Tips to Help with Social Isolation and Loneliness:

Take time to talk to family and friends via phone, virtual platform, email and/or social media

Keep up a healthy lifestyle - eat a balanced diet, exercise and get quality sleep

Take up a new hobby you always wanted to try

Get as much sunlight, fresh air, and nature as you can

Practice relaxation, meditation, and mindfulness

If the news and social media makes you feel fearful or anxious, unplug from it

If you are socially distancing and feeling lonely because of COVID-19, remind yourself this is a temporary period of isolation

Confide in family and friends about how you are feeling

Take part in an in-person support or virtual support group

If you suspect you are suffering from chronic loneliness, talk with your provider or mental health professional. They can refer you to a mental health professional to see if individual or group therapy in-person or via teletherapy is right for you. Just like a medical condition, it will only get worse if untreated.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call 911 immediately. If you are in crisis or are experiencing difficult or suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273 TALK (8255).

Regional Medical Center’s Senior Life Solutions is an intensive outpatient group therapy program designed to meet the unique needs of older adults suffering from symptoms of anxiety and depression often related to aging. For more information, or if you know an older loved one experiencing isolation or loneliness and is in need of help, call Regional Medical Center’s Senior Life Solutions program at 563-927-7560 or visit regmedctr.org/seniorlifesolutions.