Updated: Jul 24
I’ll spare you the introduction about facing a “new normal.” I take it that you’ve understood the gist of the expression and will inevitably continue to hear variations of the phrase until the end of the pandemic.
Instead, let us dive into two important concepts: loneliness and social isolation. While the two might seem synonymous, there is a clear difference between the two.
As its name implies, loneliness is best described as the state of feeling alone. As summarized from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a lonely individual may have a large group of friends or extensive social ties; the key factor in loneliness is the emotional feeling or perception of isolation. In contrast, social isolation is based on actual physical isolation. The two are not mutually exclusive. While being physically isolated by others may not necessarily cause loneliness in some, others can be experiencing loneliness as a result of being cut off from family and friends—a phenomena which may not feel so foreign for many because of changes brought about by COVID-19.
Loneliness and social isolation can affect a plethora of individuals from different backgrounds and age groups. According to this source, younger individuals are more likely to report experiencing loneliness. However, many studies have documented the effects of social isolation and loneliness on the elderly; in fact, it was deemed a public health issue prior to the start of the pandemic. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), elderly individuals were more likely than other age groups to live alone—in 2019 it was found that approximately 33% of American seniors, (compared to approximately 25% of American adults), lived alone. Older adults from minority groups, (especially those from immigrant backgrounds), are believed to be at a greater risk of experiencing loneliness.
Both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a variety of mental, physical, and emotional consequences. These include increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease as well as increased likelihood of developing depression and dementia.
Even prior to mask mandates and stay at home orders, loneliness and social isolation were pervasive issues. Compared to past decades, there is evidence suggesting that our close friend groups may have become even smaller.
On a brighter note, researchers have thought of some interesting ways to combat these conditions. Perhaps one day, we might be seeing robots in nursing homes to help combat loneliness and social isolation among the elderly.Another interesting approach looked at using the feeling of nostalgia to combat loneliness.
While current measures have individuals experiencing social isolation, there are a variety of resources for those who may be experiencing loneliness or social isolation given current circumstances.
The CDC has a variety of strategies that may help with coping with elevated levels of stress as well as resources for older adults experiencing loneliness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a comprehensive list of fun ways to stay connected with others.