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Senior Isolation Peaking as the Holiday Season Begins — Nearly Half Say They’re Lonelier Since COVID-19

Data from 2,000+ seniors over March-December period

By Jennifer L. Gaskin | Last Updated: December 14th, 2020

With potentially millions of doses of at least one coronavirus vaccine going out across the country, there’s perhaps never been more cause for optimism since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

But this virus has exacted an enormous toll already — both in the sheer number of lives lost and in the erosion of mental health for many Americans.

Since March, we’ve been tracking how well American seniors were prepared for the pandemic, how their lives and behavior had changed, and — crucially — how the social isolation that health officials prescribed for the entire country was impacting older adults’ feelings of loneliness.

So far, we’ve conducted four surveys of adults 65 and older since mid-March, and we’ve gotten more than 2,000 responses we’ve used to investigate how the COVID-19 pandemic and its response has affected older Americans.

While our July installment showed that seniors’ feelings of loneliness seemed to be abating, it appears that condition wasn’t long-lasting. In fact, our December survey had the highest level of seniors who reported that they felt lonelier than they did before the pandemic.

This perhaps should come as no surprise since lonely feelings tend to peak for many people as the days get shorter, and the pandemic is getting worse and worse. Plus, for many people, Thanksgiving, normally a time for gathering with family and friends, was anything but that this year, and the specter of a dark Christmas is ahead as the virus’s death toll keeps on rising.

For reference on our previous reports of loneliness.

Read on for a complete picture of how seniors’ loneliness changed over the year as a result of COVID-19, and check out the key findings below:

  • Almost 46 percent of seniors said in December they were more lonely than before the pandemic, up from 39 percent in July. This figure had dipped slightly between April and July, so this increase is significant.
  • People residing in senior living communities or nursing homes have far higher feelings of loneliness than the average senior, with almost 60 percent in our December survey saying they were more lonely than before.
  • In all survey periods, women were more likely than men to report feeling lonely, but in our most recent installment, that gap is narrowing. The difference between women and men in April was 18 percentage points; by December, it was down slightly to 14 percentage points.
  • Feelings of severe loneliness haven’t changed since July, but far fewer seniors report very low feelings of loneliness when asked to assign their feelings a number. In both April and July, half of seniors rated the severity of their loneliness at less than 20; in December, that number was about 44 percent.
  • Older adults considering a return to the workforce may be well-qualified for remote work — about 60 percent of seniors are now using video chat platforms at least once a month; in March, that number was barely over 25 percent.

Waves of Loneliness

Our most recent findings, based on surveys conducted in early December 2020, shows that for seniors, feelings of loneliness are the worst they’ve been since this pandemic began. Notably, we most recently asked seniors about their feelings of loneliness only a few days after a Thanksgiving holiday that was, for many Americans, unlike any they’d previously experienced. Health officials recommended people not travel or gather in large groups to celebrate the holiday, and many people took that advice, so seniors may be acutely feeling the loss of this cherished time with loved ones.

Previously, our surveys showed that while the early stages of the pandemic weren’t a terribly lonely time, feelings of isolation rose in April before falling slightly over the summer. Our research indicates that nearly half of those over 65 feel more lonely today than they did before the pandemic began — to the tune of almost 46 percent.

And with COVID-19 surging around the country (in most states, spread is out of control, according to health officials), it seems likely we’ll be in for another lonely holiday with Christmas rapidly approaching.

Percentage of seniors who say pandemic made them feel more lonely, less lonely or no different by survey month

Month

More lonely

Less lonely

No different

March

10.3%

4.0%

86.0%

April

40.0%

3.2%

57.0%

July

39.0%

4.3%

57.0%

December

45.7%

4.6%

49.7%

While the percentage of seniors who say they’re more lonely today than before they’d ever heard of COVID-19, it’s important to note that still a larger percentage say their feelings of loneliness haven’t changed. 

This may be partially due to differences in living situations of older adults. Almost 60 percent of seniors in assisted living or senior communities in December said they felt lonelier. Similarly, those who live alone, whether in their own homes or in an assisted living facility, were more likely than the group overall to report being lonely — about 52 percent. In both cases, this number has risen, but those living in assisted living or senior communities have seen the starkest increase in loneliness over the course of the year.

Percentage of seniors who say pandemic made them feel more lonely, less lonely or no different by survey month and living situation

Living arrangement

March

April

July

December

Senior community/assisted living

10.0%

37.5%

50.0%

58.2%

Live alone

12.9%

45.8%

42.6%

51.7%

Our survey continued to show that pandemic-related feelings of loneliness tend to be worse for women than for men, but as the winter holiday season kicked off, that gap is narrowing. During our April and July survey periods, the percentage of female seniors feeling lonely compared to male seniors feeling lonely was roughly the same, with a gap of about 17 percent.

While both groups saw their share of survey participants who reported being lonely rise from July to December, the gap between the genders shrunk by about three percentage points. Today, nearly 52 percent of older women say the pandemic has made them feel more lonely, compared to about 38 percent of men.

Percentage of seniors reporting feeling more lonely since the pandemic by survey month and gender

Month

Women

Men

March

12.2%

7.0%

April

47.0%

29.0%

July

46.0%

30.0%

December

51.9%

37.8%

For the first time since our survey began, more than half of older women say they’re lonelier than they were before the pandemic began. Additionally, more than one in three men said the same, also the highest rate we’ve recorded.

Staying Connected

About one in five seniors said they interact with people outside their household several times per day, which is down only slightly from our summer survey period, but it does seem that seniors are having in-person interactions less frequently overall.

Frequent daily in-person contact plummeted between March and April, falling from more than one-third of seniors saying they have this type of interaction to just over one in 10 by April. That climbed between April and July to about 22 percent and has fallen slightly to 20 percent in our most recent survey period. Whether this indicates a continued trend or a leveling-off of this figure remains to be seen.

However, it’s also worth noting that rare in-person contact, once per month or less, is at its second-highest level since our survey began. Current levels represent a more than 50 percent improvement since July. Also, during our summer survey, about 41 percent said they had in-person interactions with people outside their house a few times a week, and today that number is down to about 30 percent. 

This indicates seniors are taking seriously the need to distance themselves physically from people who live outside their household. It’s also important to note that our survey does not ask seniors if they always wear masks when interacting with people who don’t live in their homes, but research from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has repeatedly shown that seniors are the group most likely to mask up when leaving the house.

Percentage of seniors reporting in-person interaction with people outside the household by frequency and survey month

Month

Several times per day

A few times a week

Once a month or less

March

36.5%

36.8%

4.6%

April

11.5%

24.8%

24.0%

July

22.1%

40.5%

7.1%

December

20.0%

29.7%

11.3%

Seniors’ use of online communication methods has declined over the past couple of months. In July, about 45 percent of seniors said they use online tools like video chat and other means of communication multiple times per day, which is the highest level in our survey. Our most recent survey showed that’s fallen to 42 percent.

Percentage of seniors reporting online interaction with people outside the household by frequency and survey month

Month

Several times per day

A few times a week

Once a month or less

March

37.9%

20.8%

18.6%

April

34.8%

26.6%

14.9%

July

45.3%

24.9%

9.6%

December

42.0%

22.8%

10.7%

In addition to daily use of online communication methods slipping slightly, semi-weekly use of these tools also fell a bit between July and December, while sporadic use climbed. These are slight changes, but since we’ve also seen loneliness rise, it’s worth considering that these results are connected. Seniors are interacting both in-person and online a bit less frequently than over the summer, and feelings of loneliness and isolation have climbed.

They may not be using the tools as frequently, but seniors are continuing to learn new online communication methods. About 60 percent of survey participants said they’d used video chat tools to communicate with friends and family, which is the highest level in our survey, more than double over March levels.

Percentage of seniors reporting use of video calling platforms by survey month

March

26.7%

April

34.6%

July

53.5%

December

59.9%

Senior Living Facilities: New Procedures?

Most survey respondents live in houses, apartments, condos, or other homes they either own or rent, or they live with their families. In other words, they live in places where they make the rules. But a small percentage live in senior communities or assisted-living facilities, where safety protocols are up to others.

To date, we haven’t looked deeply into the practices of these facilities since such small percentages of survey respondents have these types of living situations, but this year has seen enormous changes, and senior/nursing care facilities have been devastated by coronavirus deaths.

Our first two survey periods included too few individuals to create fair comparisons. But over the past two periods, about three percent of respondents have these types of living situations. Notably, about 18 percent of them said in July that the rules where they live hadn’t changed; today, that rate was zero.

Additionally, more than 88 percent of seniors in nursing facilities or senior living communities said events had been canceled or rescheduled compared to less than 60 percent who said that in July.

Conclusion

An end to the coronavirus pandemic is on the horizon, though nobody knows when it will be safe (er, safer) to return to our previous way of life. But the reality of our situation is a twin crisis — a medical health emergency and a potentially long-lasting mental health crisis. For seniors, this year has been marked by ups-and-downs, but with feelings of loneliness likely to continue rising, preparedness and mitigation efforts must also speak to easing the burden of the pandemic on our spirits.

Methodology

Over the course of the year (in March, April, July, and December), we surveyed more than 2,000 Americans 65 and older about how the pandemic has changed their lives and whether they feel lonelier than they did before the crisis began.