The Loneliness Epidemic and COVID-19

Using technology and engaging the senses can help us tackle loneliness among older adults, say USC experts.

With the current coronavirus pandemic, many across the globe are isolated from peers and family resulting in loneliness and feelings of social isolation. We asked USC experts from the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and the Viterbi School of Engineering to weigh in on the impacts of loneliness and how technology and other strategies might be used to alleviate the sense of isolation. 

Remember that loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking

Albeit a common human emotion, loneliness can be incredibly detrimental for vulnerable and older populations, especially given the current circumstances with the pandemic. According to AARP, more than 8 million older adults have been or are affected by social isolation. Researchers from across the United States have concluded that loneliness is just as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. That, combined with socioeconomic, racial and ethnic factors, can result in a diverse group of older adults each suffering from varying levels of stress and loneliness.

“Research has found increased health and mortality risks from loneliness that are similar to that found for smoking. Older adults are especially vulnerable to social isolation because they are less likely to work or be involved in social activities that could buffer against the detrimental impact of loneliness,” said Jennifer Ailshire, an associate professor at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology who studies the sociology of health and aging. Her research particularly focuses on the importance of the neighborhood environment and social relationships in determining health over the life course.

Use technology and virtual touch to alleviate loneliness

While Facetime and video apps have allowed family and friends to stay in touch, nothing has replaced reassuring hugs and a reassuring stroke of the arm. USC Viterbi School of Engineering Professor Heather Culbertson directs the Haptics Robotics and Virtual Interaction (HaRVI) Laboratory, which studies how humans interact with our world, robots and technology through touch. Her lab designs novel haptic hardware for virtual touch in order to increase social connectedness.  Culbertson’s work focuses on how virtual touch technology can be used to benefit older adults and, in the future, potentially protect vulnerable populations from the emotional and social isolation that people have experienced during the pandemic.

Distinguished Professor and Chan Soon-Shiong Chair in Computer Science Maja Matarić has worked with the potential of robot companions in relation to pandemic-related isolation. Matarić’s lab also does a great deal of research in the interactions of humans and robots along with how to properly navigate that space to curb social isolation.

Engage the Senses

To counter these feelings of isolation, it is crucial to engage the older adults in our community in any way we can given the pandemic and social distancing protocols. 

“Not being able to touch doesn’t mean you have to be out of touch,” said Donna Benton, an associate research professor at the USC Leonard Davis School and director of the USC Family Caregiver Support Center.

Benton says that it is critical we keep all our senses as sharp as possible as we get older. Older adults can continue to be active socially through technology, but it’s on their family and friends who are more familiar with that tech to reach out a helping hand. 

Here are some stimulating suggestions for maintaining closeness while we must stay apart, according to Benton. 

  • Send a scented gift, like flavored herbal tea (lemon, pumpkin spice, chocolate).
  • Find or make a touchable card (add feathers, Cotton ball, Pipe cleaners, soft fabric). 
  • Gift them a soft plush teddy bear or other favorite animal.

The idea is to share something that wakes up the senses and can bring a smile and memory to someone who might be feeling alone and forgotten.