More COVID-19 Fallout: Social Isolation Associated with Poor Health and Emotional Distress

By Celli Horstman, Corinne Lewis: For Complete Post, Click Here…

As a result of social distancing and other interventions, the COVID-19 pandemic has cut many people off from their emotional and social support systems. For older adults, this may have exacerbated feelings of isolation; the percentage of those who reported feeling isolated jumped from 27 percent in 2018 to 56 percent after the start of the pandemic. This is particularly concerning for older adults with high health care needs — that is, people with multiple chronic conditions or functional limitations who require assistance with daily activities. Feelings of isolation not only create emotional distress but also have the potential to further exacerbate their already complicated health problems and even contribute to early mortality. Social distancing was an effective approach to slowing COVID-19 transmission — especially among a population at increased risk of infection — but any resulting feelings of isolation may have contributed to new health and social risks for this medically vulnerable group.

To explore how isolation affects high-need older adults and examine their experiences during the pandemic, we analyzed data from the Commonwealth Fund 2021 International Health Policy Survey of Older Adults. We found, consistent with previous research, that high-need adults are significantly more likely to report social isolation; more than one of 10 (12%) high-need older adults reported often feeling isolated from others, compared to 5 percent of older adults without high needs.

In line with previous research, isolation appears to be associated with poorer health. High-need older adults who reported feeling isolated were more likely than those not feeling isolated to report they were in fair or poor health (rather than good or excellent health); these adults were also more likely to report going to the emergency room for care that could have been provided by their regular clinician.

Among high-need adults who feel isolated, nearly two-thirds reported having a mental health diagnosis or feeling emotionally distressed in the past year; this is a significantly higher rate than high-need adults who do not feel isolated. Experts report that the relationship between mental well-being and feelings of isolation are bidirectional, with isolation worsening an individual’s mental health conditions, and mental health conditions exacerbating feelings of isolation. It is possible the COVID-19 pandemic had a multifaceted impact on the mental well-being of older adults.

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