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What Does Self-Isolation and Solitude Mean for Older Adults?

Updated: Mar 18, 2020

The World Health Organization is now calling the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic and the virus spreads rapidly worldwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US recommends that older adults, who are at higher risk of serious illness from the novel coronavirus, take action to reduce their exposure to it. Earlier this week MPs asked Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England and chief scientific advisor for health and social care, about vulnerable populations. “One of the bits of advice that we will give is for people who are older or who have pre-existing health conditions to have some degree of isolation from more public environments,” he said.

Whether they are forced to self-isolate, or they do so voluntarily, the result will be the same—many older adults will be alone at home with practical and emotional needs. As the Guardian pointed out in its reporting yesterday, that makes many anxious that loneliness will be exacerbated in an already-vulnerable community.

Health experts’ guidance for family and community support for those in isolation is focused on the practical—making sure those folks have enough medication, food and household items on hand to withstand weeks on their own. In some places, community-based groups have stepped in to fill that breach, delivering groceries and other items to self-isolating older neighbors.

At the same time, the CDC makes no mention of how to support that population psychologically during this time. In those same well-meaning community groups there is no mention of how to fulfill the human requirement for connection, which can be as important as one’s physical needs to overall well-being.

This gives us reason for concern because periods of time spent alone can bring about loneliness and depression even in adults who do not otherwise experience it. ‘Social isolation’ is not new in our attempt to understand the challenges faced by older adults. Social scientists have been concerned about the impacts that extended alone time has on older adults’ mental and physical health, which seems to decline more rapidly in the absence of close connections.

When people find themselves alone because they were pressured or forced into it, this puts them at even higher risks for negative consequences. Older adults facing self-isolation for a lengthy, or unpredictable and therefore uncontrollable period of time, are at risk of experiencing solitude in a way that is harmful to their wellness. But that is not a foregone conclusion.

Studies show that older adults may actually be more naturally resilient in the face of solitude than their younger counterparts. An important reason for this strength is that for those who are older, the quality of social contacts both seem to matter more than the quantity of social interactions. For this reason, a thoughtful conversation, even when online or by phone, can go a long way to providing the connection needed during time spent alone.

Second, older adults report emotional benefits from having high quality relationships in their lives even if those are not front-and-center; just knowing there are people ‘out there’ who care can have a positive effect. Although researchers haven’t examined people in extended periods of isolation, it is likely that having good friends or a loving family who continue to check in from time to time, helps protect older adults from loneliness during time spent at home.

Another factor that balances optimism with concern is that support can come from many sources. Research has shown that social support from friends and neighbors may be even more important for long-term health than family support. That means the potential pool of people who can help during a social crisis like this is much bigger, and community efforts may make a big difference in people’s lives.


About the authors:

Dr. Netta Weinstein is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Cardiff University in the UK; Heather Hansen is a journalist and researcher at Cardiff University; and Dr. Thuy-vy Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of Social Psychology at Durham University in the UK. Together, they are leading SOAR: Solitude, Alone and Resilient, an ERC-funded project to predict well-being during time spent alone.

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