Issues around social disconnection among older adults gained significant, recent attention in light of stay-at-home orders, closure of nursing homes and other senior residences to visitors, and, more generally, public health messaging advising vulnerable populations to socially distance and limit exposure to social gatherings.
While necessary to limit the spread of the virus, these COVID-19 public health measures are likely to increase the risk of social disconnection for some older adults, and action is needed to mitigate these unintended consequences.
The Georgia Heath Policy undertook a review of the literature to aid practitioners in identifying assessment tools that measure social disconnection among older adults and effectively identify individuals for follow-up support and appropriate interventions that can improve connectedness.
Social Disconnection Predates COVID-19
Even before COVID-19, social disconnection was common among older adults and is known to negatively impact health and well-being. Despite understanding that social disconnection is a widespread problem, there has been a lack of agreement on how to define this concept, which in turn slowed the development of effective measurement tools and interventions.
Recognizing the potential long-term impact the COVID-19 pandemic may have on older adults’ health and well-being, paying urgent attention to social disconnection is warranted.
Defining and Measuring the Problem
Social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, yet both fail to capture the multifaceted nature of social connections and relationships.
- Social isolation is a lack of social contact, relationships, and participation in society.
- Loneliness is the perception or felt experience that one is lacking desired social relationships.
There is increasing support for the adoption of holistic tools that can comprehensively measure social connection.
- Social disconnection is an overarching, holistic term that encompass structural, functional, and qualitative components of social interactions.
Emerging literature supports a two-phase process that combines screening with a more comprehensive assessment process. Read more about recommended holistic assessment strategies here.
How to Intervene
While there is movement toward a composite measurement tool for social disconnectedness, there is recognition that disconnectedness is tied to individuals’ unique life circumstances and that each individual experiences social disconnection differently. Thus, no single intervention will be effective for all individuals and person-centered interventions are necessary to meet individual needs and preferences.
GHPC’s research found that interventions with a sound theoretical basis, active participation from older adult participants, productive engagement activities, and that can be adapted to local contexts are more likely to be effective.
In the absence of strong evidence on effective interventions, practitioners are actively innovating and implementing practical approaches based on individuals’ needs and preferences. Consistent reassessment of individuals receiving these interventions will be critical and, ideally, inform the development of a menu of evidence-based intervention options for those at risk for or affected by social disconnectedness.