Virtual Wolverine Caucus: Loneliness Among Older Adults

By Erica Colaianne

How has the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to loneliness among older adults? Three experts participated in the Virtual Wolverine Caucus panel on February 26, 2021 to answer that question using the information they have gathered through research and in their work. They also outlined coping mechanisms and activities that promote safe social interactions. 

The panelists were:

  • Preeti Malani, MD, MSJ, U-M Chief Health Officer and a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Director of the National Poll on Healthy Aging
  • Lindsay Kobayashi, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health and Principal Investigator of the COVID-19 Coping Study 
  • Jason Maciejewski, Chief Advocacy & Planning Officer of The Senior Alliance, Area Agency on Aging 1C

Malani explained that the National Poll on Healthy Aging taps into the perspectives of adults ages 50-80 from across the United States on a variety of topics including loneliness and how it impacts the overall health and well-being of older Americans and their families. 

The poll conducted in June 2020 focused on lack of companionship, social interactions, and health behaviors. When compared to a similar NPHA survey conducted in October 2018, the survey shows a substantial increase in loneliness among older adults from before the COVID-19 pandemic to the period of March through June 2020.

“As the pandemic began to unfold, it really became clear that this wasn’t going to be a short-term thing, and the poll team wanted to really capture some of the day-to-day effects of the pandemic on our study population. We tend to talk a lot about deaths and hospitalizations, but we don’t really talk about all of the other ill effects on health,” Malani said. 

Another study that examined the changes in older adults’ lives amid the pandemic is the COVID-19 Coping Study, which Kobayashi presented on during the panel. She explained that the COVID-19 Coping Study investigated the dynamic changes in older adults’ experiences, perspectives, daily activities, coping strategies, mental health, and well-being during the pandemic. The goal is to generate knowledge that can be used to inform best practices to support health and well-being of older adults during public health crises. 

Kobayashi talks about the pandemic like an onion—the outer layer of the onion is the direct infection, but once peeled there are a lot of secondary health and well-being effects, primarily mental health and loneliness. 

“The COVID-19 Coping Study is unique is that in addition to collecting traditional survey data we also invited people to share their stories with us through open-ended responses about their experiences about things they were having a hard time with, how they were coping, and I think these are really important because they provide a lot of nuance and insight alongside quarantine numerical trends,” Kobayashi said. “They’re important for humanizing the people behind the numbers.” 

Maciejewski talked about the Senior Alliance, which is the area agency on aging that serves 34 communities of westerrn and southern Wayne County. In a survey conducted in 2019, roughly a third of older adults felt some form of lack of contact.

“That social isolation that is occurring in our community is having direct effects on other parts of people’s lives,” he said.  

Watch the full presentation