Bridging Isolation at the End of Life

Almost two years ago, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about the dangers of loneliness to our health and efforts to combat it, like the UK’s “friendly benches,” encouraging people to connect.

Little did any of us know that the COVID pandemic beginning a few months later would make connection even more difficult.

While the pandemic has been tough for most of us, the isolation of the nation’s seniors and disabled has been particularly rough on mental health.

A study by health insurance marketplace company GoHealth found that one in four seniors surveyed were experiencing mental health declines, almost a third were lonely and 80 percent said the pandemic had impacted how often they saw family or friends. Another study found one in five reported being frequently lonely in the last four years of their lives.

Isolation impacts health

According to research sponsored by AARP, isolation is associated with an increased likelihood of early death, dementia and heart disease. Social isolation is more lethal than excessive drinking, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity, according to research by BYU.

High-tech and low-tech solutions

According to a recent article in Hospice News, solutions both high and low-tech can, and are, helping fight isolation in hospice while other approaches can help bridge the gap at home.

Hospices around the country have invested in many technology platforms to give residents access to online content, conferencing and calling.

Whether online or in person, from arts and crafts to relaxation and religious gatherings, having programs that provide structure and purpose can help residents feel connected and engaged, experts say.

Physicians can be more proactive in asking about patients’ lives at home. Just giving them space to discuss their social lives can be therapeutic, says Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of California in San Francisco, and lead author of a recent isolation study.

Families can also set up regular calls or visits where possible, or even stream a movie together or set up a monthly “book club.”

Neighbors and community groups can play a role. The social network site Nextdoor is working with researchers studying the impact of small acts of kindness by neighbors.

Researchers have also looked at grassroots pen pal programs, but the jury is still out as to whether they are effective.

Volunteers can make a difference with regularly scheduled phone calls, studies have found. A number of programs on the West Coast connect volunteers to isolated seniors and disabled folks. You can find a few of them below if you’d like to volunteer or you or if a family member or client needs their help.

Advice, resources and tips

Whether you are a health or hospice care provider, family member or senior in need of services, there are additional resources and information available.

National Institute on Aging
Caring Connection, Ore.
Listos California Bridging Project, Calif.
Volunteer Services in King County, Wash.
Pierce County Telephone Reassurance Program, Wash.
AgeWell Social Calls Program, San Diego, Calif.


Photo by Eduardo Buscariolli

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