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Understanding Loneliness and Social Isolation

Peggy Fossen DNP, RN, CNE

We all experience loneliness at some point in our lives.  Loneliness and social isolation became prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic for many of us.  While all ages experienced these feelings for the first time, older adults have not been strangers to social isolation and loneliness for some time.  

While, social isolation and loneliness can be connected, they are separate concepts.  So, what makes them different?

Social Isolation is defined as the absence of social connections. Whereas Loneliness is the feeling of being alone. The two concepts are linked together, as social isolation can cause feelings of loneliness. However, it is possible to feel lonely even if you are not social isolated.

What they do have in common is that they are a significant risk to mental and physical health, and older adults are at a higher risk to experience both.

Know the Risk Factors

Social Isolation and loneliness are now considered a public health concern. As life expectancy increases, these issues also increase, becoming more prevalent and impacting the quality of life for older adults. However, prevention is possible if we recognize and understand what can cause social isolation and loneliness. This begins with recognizing some of the key risk factors. This includes the changes which occur as we grow older, putting us at risk for social isolation and loneliness. Some of these include.

  • Living alone
  • Loss of hearing
  • Loss of vision
  • Mobility restrictions
  • Loss of family and friends
  • Living alone
  • Limited finances
  • Transportation challenges
  • Depression
  • Being the caregiver of others

Knowing if you are at risk and identifying why is very important. Not just because the feeling of loneliness can be distressing, but because social isolation and loneliness have been linked to significant physical and mental conditions.  Understanding how social isolation and loneliness can contribute to these conditions can be somewhat confusing but think of it this way. “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases” (, 2019

Some of these diseases include.

  • Heart Disease
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obesity
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Weakened Immune System
  • Sleep Abnormalities
  • Higher risk for the development of Alzheimer’s Disease

What Can I do?

The good news is there are ways to address the risk factors and decrease negative outcomes related to social isolation and loneliness. There are ways to get connected, stay connected and be involved. Here are some great suggestions.

  • Find activities involving other people, such as a yoga class, craft class, water aerobics, or a book club.
  • Get in touch, or stay in touch, with old and new friends. Try to have a least one friend who supports you and you can talk with.
  • Use technology to stay connected. Learn to Zoom!
  • Volunteer or help others.
  • Increase your physical activity, join a exercise group or walking club.
  • Join a community cause.
  • Find others with common interests. Look at different support groups, online or in person.
  • Look at available resources and visit the local senior center or public library.
  • Spread the word about social isolation and loneliness-check out the Social Isolation and Loneliness Outreach Toolkit.  
  • Consider becoming a Senior Companion.

Senior Companions

Becoming a Senior Companion has multiple benefits, for both the recipient and the companion. A recent study discussed the positive physical and social benefits. The Senior Companions reported they felt they were “better off” because of the experience. Along with an increased sense of meaning and purpose. In addition, many felt appreciated. Overall, the study supported the importance of social interaction among older adults.

The Dr Piper Center is a wonderful example of a successful Senior Companion Program and how everyone benefits from being involved.  With loneliness reaching an all-time high, it is reassuring to know there are resources and places like the Dr. Piper Center to help. So, get out, get involved, check out the resources, help each other,  and stay engaged!


CDC (2021). Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions.

Cigna. The Loneliness Epidemic Persists: A Post-Pandemic Look at the State of Loneliness among U.S. Adults.

Hood, S., Lu, Y. Y., Jenkins, K., Brown, E. R., Beaven, J., Brown, S. A., Hendrie, H. C., & Austrom, M. G. (2018). Exploration of Perceived Psychosocial Benefits of Senior Companion Program Participation Among Urban-Dwelling, Low-Income Older Adult Women Volunteers. Innovation in aging, 2(2), igy018.

NCO (2022). Navigating Social Isolation and Loneliness as an Older Adult.

NIA/NIH. (2019. Social Isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks.

NIH (2021). Loneliness and Social Isolation-Tips for Staying Connected.

SPRC (2020). Reducing Loneliness and Social Isolation among Older Adults.

Social Work (2021). Resources for Older Adults Experiencing Loneliness.

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