The pandemic has made social isolation even more commonplace.
Whether hunkered down with the nuclear family, a spouse, or roommates, practically everyone is feeling the pinch of curtailed interactions and relationships that are confined to the phone and video conferencing.
But for older adults, the pandemic only made an existing problem worse. The CDC has called social isolation in older adults a serious public health risk.
“It actually increases your risk of early death from all causes,” Dr. Erwin Tan, director of health and thought leadership at AARP, noted on a recent AARP Town Hall for the LGBTQ community. “Some people say it’s as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”
And social isolation is an even bigger issue for LGBTQ elders.
According to “Maintaining Dignity: Understanding and Responding to the Challenges Facing Older LGBT Americans,” a survey conducted by AARP, increasing social support is a major challenge. That’s particularly true of gay men and transgender/gender-expansive individuals.
Gay men in the survey were far more likely to be single and living alone compared to lesbians and reported being less connected than lesbians on every relationship type tested, including friends, partners, and neighbors. Transgender people were the least likely of all to be connected to sources of social support.
However, there are resources available to help older adults recognize and overcome social isolation. These resources work particularly well for a community that has relied upon self-empowerment in its quest for liberation, by allowing individuals to take better control over their lives and ensure themselves the social support they need.
Here are some key steps to help fight social isolation:
1. Assess how connected you are
Knowing where you are are in terms of a support network at the moment helps you understand where you need to be. Just how strong is your social support system? It may not be as strong as you think. A good place to start is to assess how connected you really are. The AARP Foundation offers a short assessment as part of its Connect2Affect program. By asking about some of the main contributors to social isolation, this exercise lets you know about potential problem areas. Importantly, the assessment also offers recommendations and resources for fighting isolation.
2. Take advantage of the resources out there
If you are feeling isolated, AARP Community Connections, an online platform launched by AARP Innovation Labs, offers practical help. (It’s free to anyone; AARP membership is not required.) You can find local volunteer groups to help with everything from getting groceries to lessons on how to take advantage of Zoom video conferencing. The site is a rich source of material to help with a broad range of issues, some connected directly to isolation, such as dealing with grief and financial planning.
3. Talk to someone
A conversation can go a long way to alleviating a sense of loneliness. If you want to hear a friendly voice, AARP ‘s Community Connections includes a Friendly Voice program that allows you to request a call from a trained volunteer. Don’t discount the power of an online community as well. Even if you are staying at home most of the time, you don’t have to be cut off from other people. Part of AARP Community Connections is The Mighty, a safe, supportive online community for people facing health challenges and their caregivers. You can share your experiences with people who are facing similar ones, knowing that they’ll understand what you’re feeling.
4. Be aware of how your health affects your social connections
Certainly, isolation is a major issue for people with physical limitations that affect mobility. But one of the major contributors to social isolation is often overlooked: hearing loss. Because hearing loss generally comes on gradually, it’s easy to overlook.
If you find yourself having trouble understanding conversations, sounds seem muffled, or you have to turn the volume higher when listening to music, TV or the radio, talk to your health care provider. You may be experiencing hearing loss. Untreated hearing loss can keep us from engaging with others, leading to isolation and loneliness. Fortunately, hearing loss can be corrected. Even if you have a limitation that can’t be corrected, you can still take advantage of the resources available to remain connected to the community around you.
Maybe you’re feeling isolated but you don’t have the physical limitations that keep you at home most of the time. If you’re physically able, you can consider volunteering. (During the pandemic, there are also volunteer opportunities that require only a telephone or laptop that will still keep you connected.) It’s a great way to meet people and to put your experience to good use.
AARP has a Volunteer Opportunity Board that tells you about organizations in your area that lets you share your experience and interests with groups that could use your help. LGBTQ organizations also rely heavily on volunteers to keep them going. Consider reaching out to see what you can do to help your community and you will be enriched beyond measure in return.
For more information, WATCH the AARP Town Hall: