In doing an internet search for this piece, I came across an interesting article that in 1972, French adventurer and scientist Michel Siffre famously shut himself in a cave in Texas for more than six months—what still clocks in as one of the longest self-isolation experiments in history. Meticulously documenting the effects on his mind over those 205 days, Siffre wrote that he could “barely string thoughts” together after a couple months. By the five-month mark, he was reportedly so desperate for company that he tried (unsuccessfully) to befriend a mouse.
This kind of experiment, and less extreme isolation periods such as those experienced by spaceship crews or scientists working in remote Antarctic research stations, has offered glimpses of some of the cognitive and mental effects of sensory and social deprivation. People routinely report confusion, changes in personality, and episodes of anxiety and depression.
For most of human society, however, social isolation acts in more gradual ways than these “experiments” capture, often affecting vulnerable members of the population, such as the elderly. According to recent studies, levels of loneliness have reached an all-time high due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence points to linking social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, fear, poor sleep quality, impaired function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity.
For many adults aged 50 and older, routines or habits tend to change when socially isolated or lonely. Recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increased a person’s smoking habits, eating habits, hygiene and physical inactivity.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
See the Signs
Health care systems are an important partner in identifying loneliness and preventing medical conditions associated with loneliness. Nearly all adults aged 50 or older interact with the health care system in some way. For those without social connections, a doctor’s appointment or visit from a home health aide may be one of the few face-to-face encounters they have. This represents a unique opportunity for clinicians and/or caregivers to identify people at risk for loneliness or social isolation.
Create a Plan
It’s also important that communication and planning allow us to remain safely connected to our loved ones (even more so during the pandemic). Remaining connected is especially important for people who live alone; regular social contact can be a lifeline for support if they develop symptoms. Regularly scheduled phone calls and video conferences along with texting and emails can help compensate for a lack of in-person contact. A plan should also confirm how one will be accessing food, medicine and other medical supplies.
The key to any health issue is early detection. Let JEVS Care at Home provide the companionship care today and reduce the risk of social isolation for your loved one tomorrow.