Social interaction plays an important role in physical and mental health, and among the elderly, its role is as pivotal in long-term health outcomes as physical activity or medication adherence.

Unfortunately, this patient population often struggles with mobility, which creates a barrier to social interaction. To make matters worse, a lack of regular social opportunities can often have a compounding effect: a 2015 study found that even when barriers to social participation are removed, the elderly can remain withdrawn and unwilling to socialize.

In this blog post, we will take a look at the benefits of regular social interaction for long-term care residents, the health risks posed by a lack of social interaction, and how visitors can help encourage the their loved ones to take a more proactive approach to socialization.

The Effects of Social Isolation

Humans are naturally social and are inclined to participate in social interaction, and even healthy older adults are not immune to the effects of prolonged social isolation.

A 2012 study found a strong correlation between social isolation and mortality among older adults, and a 2013 study noted an increased risk for coronary artery disease-associated death due to prolonged loneliness — even in middle-aged adults with no prior heart attacks. Loneliness and isolation have an even more profound impact among the elderly, both in terms of their physical health and their mental well-being.

Mental health effects

By far the most significant effect of prolonged isolation is depression, but a recent study notes other harmful mental health effects like “poor self-rated health, impaired functional status, vision deficits, and a perceived negative change in the quality of one’s life.” For ill and/or elderly residents in long-term care, who are at an increased risk for depression, this is a particular concern.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, elderly living away from their loved ones have been even more susceptible to the devastating impacts of social isolation and loneliness. A recent survey of residents in long-term care facilities found that 76% of respondents felt lonelier due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The same survey found that only 28% of residents engage in activities as simple as going outside once a week for fresh air, compared to 83% of residents who did so before the pandemic.

For those with dementia or Alzheimer’s, isolation can have catastrophic effects. A recent analysis of federal data found that compared to 2019, the mortality rate for people with dementia are almost 11% higher since the lockdowns began in March. Visitation restrictions that have increased isolation may be a key contributor to the spike in the mortality rate.

We often think of mental health as separate and distinct from physical health. In many ways, it is, but the mental health problems caused by prolonged social isolation can manifest as physical health issues as well.

Physical health effects

In addition to mental health problems, social isolation can lead to an increased risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Isolation can also contribute to a weakened immune system, which makes recovery more difficult. The APA puts it more succinctly: “Social isolation increases mortality risk on par with such risk factors as smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity.”

The Benefits of Visitors

Combating the effects of isolation starts with increasing social interaction. Visitors play an important role in improving the physical and mental health of the ill and elderly long-term care residents.

Improved quality of care

In a busy facility, staff and providers tend to focus more on the patients or residents with the most urgent needs. This is understandable and reasonable; however, it can leave more stable patients or residents feeling ignored or overlooked. Many residents often struggle to ask for help — even when they need it — to avoid feeling like a burden.

Visitors can advocate on behalf of residents and patients who might otherwise not voice their concerns. This ensures residents get the care they need without feeling like they’re keeping the staff and providers from doing more important things. Moreover, flagging issues early helps facility staff take a more proactive approach to care, potentially preventing events that lead to hospital stays. Visitors can also play a role in post-hospitalization care, and their advocacy on behalf of their loved one can even result in faster recovery times in a rehabilitation care facility.

Encouraging social interaction

Older adults tend to have fewer social relationships than younger generations, but the relationships the elderly do have tend to be more emotionally fulfilling.

Despite rich relationships, isolation from COVID-19 visitor restrictions have truly taken a toll. A recent survey showed that 64% of long-term care facility residents no longer leave their rooms to socialize. It’s possible that facility policies are preventing socialization, but it also may be that the more isolated and lonely a resident is, the less likely they are to engage with others. Visitors not only help combat the direct effect of isolation and loneliness, but they can also encourage their loved ones to find ways to socialize when they aren’t able to visit.

Social isolation and loneliness negatively impact all age groups, but they pose an especially significant risk to the ill and elderly. Socializing with friends and family can provide numerous mental and physical health benefits that can’t be enjoyed through interactions with facility staff alone.

While COVID-19 remains an ever-present risk among these populations, the impact of the lockdowns earlier this year makes it clear that prolonged isolation is not the solution. Finding ways to safely connect long-term care residents with their loved ones on a regular basis is critical. symplr Visitor Management can help facilities safely and efficiently resume visitation, while still remaining in compliance with CMS visitation guidelines.

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