“Social distancing.” “Isolation.” “Quarantine.” In the ongoing life adjustments to the coronavirus pandemic, we are all being bombarded with these words on a daily basis. With many of us now working from home, juggling our work, care of children, parents or other family members, coordinating with other household members also working from home and much more, it is understandable we may start to experience mental and emotional tolls. At the Center, we are looking at this topic both professionally and personally. We believe that, as advocates, we may be particularly well equipped by our experiences, organizing practices and instinctive networking skills, to help counteract the negative effects of social isolation during this period of necessary social distancing.

Social isolation is defined as an absence of social contact and can be triggered by a number of things, such as a loss of mobility, unemployment, health issues, etc. and can lead to loneliness. Many health care providers – long before this pandemic began – have considered social isolation and loneliness to be a hidden health crisis in our country. More people than ever report feeling socially isolated or lonely. It is believed that 25 to 60 percent of older Americans are affected by loneliness. African American men and women are more likely to experience isolation than white men and women.

Studies have shown that social isolation can contribute to other negative behaviors, such as increased smoking or alcohol consumption. Additionally, social isolation has been linked to depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life. It has been reported that a prolonged lack of social connection can carry as much risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Researchers at Florida State University College of Medicine found that loneliness is associated with a 40 percent increase in a person’s risk of developing dementia. A 2018 American Cancer Society study linked social isolation with a higher risk of premature death due to the combined impact of all negative effects.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated this problem for tens of millions of people.  While older adults and others at elevated COVID-19 risk due to health reasons are especially vulnerable to the risks of social isolation while homebound, now many more adults will be newly affected, and for an uncertain length of time. Experts are concerned that even after this pandemic is over, social isolation may continue at an even higher rate across societies globally as an expanding chronic crisis. We all need to work together to connect people to others during this pandemic and beyond. So what can advocates be doing to combat social isolation?

  1. Continue to organize while complying with social distancing. Calling on your base of most involved individuals to check-in on other people you’ve connected with in the past goes a long way to combat social isolation and enhance organizing. Advocacy groups can work to collate lists of people who need continuing social support and organize phone, Facetime, or video-conference platform check-ins or other technology-supported social events. Additionally, organizations can create a place (either online or by phone) where people can request help or social interaction. Groups can also create an easily accessible database of resources for those who find themselves socially isolated. You can find more information in the new guide Community Catalyst recently released: At a Safe Distance: Grassroots Organizing Strategies that Comply with Social Distancing Protocols. 

  1. Advocate for and support meal delivery programs. Not only will this continue to help older adults, people with disabilities and other at-risk people maintain access to nutritious food, but it will also promote social interactions – even a quick chat with another person from a safe six-foot social distance at the door. A study from Brown University found that 77 percent of people who received daily, hot meals from Meals on Wheels said it helped them to feel less lonely. 

  1. Collate a list of community residents who are willing to socialize virtually. Work to match these residents with one another and/or with volunteers. This may be challenging in reaching those populations who do not have access to the internet. Advocates should be mindful that low-income older adults and communities of color experience significant inequities in digital access. Basic telephone conversations – or even mail for an initial contact – must not be overlooked as necessary channels of communication.

  1. Advocate for health plans to invest in solutions intended to tackle loneliness and social isolation. Pushing health plans to cover technology solutions to loneliness is one way to address social isolation. 

  1. Continue to monitor the Center for Disease Control website for more information on COVID-19 as well as managing stress and social isolation.

We offer these points in the hope they may be useful on a variety of levels; professionally in your organizing efforts, but also in your familial, community and personal lives.