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The ‘loneliness pandemic’: implications for gerontological nursing

10 June 2021
10 min read
Volume 30 · Issue 11

Abstract

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled states to limit free movement, in order to protect at-risk and more vulnerable groups, particularly older adults. Due to old age or debilitating chronic diseases, this group is also more vulnerable to loneliness (perceived discrepancy between actual and desired social relationships) and social isolation (feeling that one does not belong to society). This forced isolation has negative consequences for the health of older people, particularly their mental health. This is an especially challenging time for gerontological nursing, but it is also an opportunity for professionals to combat age stereotypes reinforced with COVID-19, to urge the measurement of loneliness and social isolation, and to rethink how to further adjust interventions in times of crisis, such as considering technology-mediated interventions in these uncertain times.

Social isolation and loneliness are two of the major emergencies our societies face in the 21st century (Prohaska et al, 2020). Although both emergencies are not a direct consequence of COVID-19, the pandemic has aggravated them and increased our awareness of these issues (Hwang et al, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has forced different countries to limit free movement, in order to protect at-risk or more vulnerable groups, particularly older adults living in residential care homes or in the community. Due to old age or debilitating chronic diseases, this group is more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation when their usual ways of connecting with the family or with the entities providing social care and healthcare services are unavailable or limited (Berg-Weger and Morley, 2020; Prohaska et al, 2020).

Loneliness and social isolation are two distinct concepts and can be experienced individually or jointly. Loneliness is commonly defined as a subjective negative feeling associated with a perceived lack of a wider social network (social loneliness) or the absence of a specific desired companion (emotional loneliness). The definition of social isolation is less consensual. Many studies consider social isolation a unidimensional concept, defined as the objective lack or paucity of social contacts and interactions (Fakoya et al, 2020). Alternatively, multidimensional definitions have incorporated the quality, as well as the quantity, of relationships—with loneliness falling under the subjective component of social isolation (Maltby et al, 2020).

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