It has been almost three years since our community and health care leaders told us to “shelter in place” from a pandemic, about which our medical professionals still knew very little. Staying home wasn’t a law anywhere in the U.S. but the vast majority of us obeyed the directive and hunkered down, waiting for better guidance about what we were facing. We ordered our groceries online or by phone and had them delivered. Many of us, not knowing yet how this new virus was spread, disinfected food or anything else that arrived at our doorstep. We disinfected our hands, the doorknobs, the countertops. We ceased all face-to-face interaction with people outside our homes.
Many people set up mini-gyms in their homes to take the place of the health club memberships we could no longer enjoy. Others took long walks – alone or with their spouse, live-in partner, or dog. We signed up for Zoom by the millions in order to continue our book clubs, our family visits, our professional associations, and everything else we used to do face-to-face with others. Thank goodness we had that option! But do we still need it?
I get that the pandemic isn’t “over.” I get that older adults and those with auto-immune diseases and other conditions make them more susceptible to a serious case of Covid-19, but at some point we all have to accept the fact that Covid will be with us for the foreseeable future, in some form or other, and get on with our lives in a way that doesn’t isolate us from our fellow human beings.
In 2023, isolation is a more serious threat to older adults than Covid, whether or not you are vaccinated. Loneliness and social isolation affect a very large number of older adults in the United States and puts them at risk for a variety of serious medical conditions, including dementia. The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has concluded that there is a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that “social isolation presents a major risk for premature mortality, comparable to …high blood pressure, smoking, or obesity.”
Living alone has become more and more prevalent in the U.S. Our country has a higher percentage of people over 60 living alone than any of 130 other countries studied in a 2020 comparison. U.S. adults are also more likely than their counterparts in other areas of the world to live as a couple without any others in the household. Forty-six percent of Americans in the over-60 age group share a home with only a spouse or partner – a much larger figure than the 31% of older adults globally. These figures put older Americans today at much greater risk of isolation and loneliness than ever before.
The antidote to this sad situation is well within our grasp. We need to build and reinforce strong social support systems in our community – in person. I cringe every time an older adult tells me that their book club, their community meetings, their family get-togethers, their senior center activities, their exercise class, etc. are still meeting by Zoom because it’s more convenient, it’s cheaper, it’s more inclusive, it’s safer. All those things may be true, but to succumb to the temptation to stay online, for any of those reasons, is to ignore the fact that we need human connection beyond the two-dimensional. Sacrificing the opportunity for personal exchanges, side conversations, and, most important of all, the ability to hug or put a hand on someone’s shoulder, comes with a very big price tag. Breaking bread together or sharing a few drinks in the same room is so much more important to our mental and physical health than most people realize. Isolation can be insidious; it can overtake us before we realize it is happening.
I applaud all the employers, meeting organizers, and social groups who have courageously decided that 2022 or 2023 was the year to get back to normal interactions, back to live offices, conferences and meet-ups. That decision will jar a lot of people out of their comfort zones. Will a few of them get covid? Yes, I’m sure they will, but just like the flu and cold viruses of years past, the interactions will help us all build back the immunity we need to survive in the world. And we will all be better off emotionally.