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Caregiving and Social Isolation

This is Part 1 in a two-part series about caregiving and social isolation. 

When a person is diagnosed with a serious illness such as Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, family, friends, and neighbors immediately flock to a family’s side. But as time passes, this initial wave of attention wanes and people return to their normal routines. Offers to help and invitations to socialize decrease or may stop altogether, and even phone calls become less frequent. This affects the caregiver as well as the patient, both of whom may feel forgotten.. Caregivers feel neglected and alone.

Public health experts are concerned about an epidemic of loneliness in the general U.S. population. People who are lonely and socially isolated are more likely to have health problems. Loneliness and isolation have been likened to the effects of smoking 15 cigarettes per day. A January 2020 report by Cigna, a health insurance company, suggests about 60% of American adults feel some degree of loneliness.

Chronic loneliness has clear links to many health problems, including heart conditions, dementia, depression, anxiety, self-harm, and substance abuse. Studies also show that people without social support have a lower chance of making a full recovery after a serious illness than people with a strong social network.

Caregiving in the U.S. 2020 Reports Loneliness Data

Approximately every five years, AARP and the National Alliance for Caregivers release an update to Caregiving in the U.S., a research series begun in 1997. The following statistics were released in the report for 2020 and are based on data collected in 2019 from approximately 1,400 caregivers:

  • Despite living with another adult, caregivers who co-reside with their care recipient more often report feeling lonely (29%) than do caregivers who do not live with their care recipient (16%).
  • Those caring for a spouse/partner (29%) more often feel alone than those caring for someone else (20%).
  • As the years of providing care increase, so too does the feeling of being alone, with 14% of those caring for less than a year, 22% of those caring for one to four years and 32% of those caring for five or more years, feeling alone.
  • Caregivers who use social media more often report feeling alone.

COVID-19 and Caregiver Isolation

The COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the challenges faced by caregivers. Most face-to-face socializing has been limited to members of their own households and possibly only with their care recipient. As a result of restrictions on visits and higher susceptibility to COVID-19, older adults are likely to be even more cut off from outside life.

Caregivers who were able to enjoy at least some “Me Time” for respite before the pandemic are now confined to their homes nearly 24 hours a day. Lastly, even healthy, loving relationships can suffer from a “too much togetherness” syndrome that the pandemic created.  This is even more true for a caregiver-care recipient relationship which already has built-in daily challenges.

Check back here next week for Part 2 in this series where we will share ways caregivers can combat social isolation and loneliness.

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash


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