Mercy Doctor Discusses Impact of Loneliness

July 7, 2020

Loneliness can affect anyone at any age, and as COVID-19 restrictions continue, a Mercy doctor weighs in on the impact loneliness can have on both physical and mental health.

Dr. Rachel Fiori, psychiatrist with Mercy Fort Smith, says connecting with others is an essential part of a person’s overall well-being. Recent studies suggest a link between loneliness and a variety of health issues that may be compounded by the vulnerability that loneliness can create. Those include Alzheimer’s, dementia and other issues that affect the brain.

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“Loneliness and depression are barriers to physical and emotional well-being,” she says. “This has become worse with COVID-19,” she says, because family and friends often find themselves separated by restrictions that limit their abilities to gather either in a public or a private setting.

While many people have turned to technology to stay in touch, it isn’t enough just to connect in a “virtual” atmosphere, Dr. Fiori says.

“Don't depend upon social media to keep you connected,” she says. “While it can show us what others are doing, it can sometimes be further isolating if you are watching their activity from the sidelines. If you can’t get out and visit, try a good old-fashioned phone call. Human contact, hearing a voice, makes a big difference to someone who has only heard the noises of their air conditioner, TV and pet for days.

“It is not healthy for anyone to live in isolation. You cannot hug through Facetime!”

Dr. Fiori says older people tend to be affected most by loneliness because they are less able to connect in ways outside of in-person contact.

“Our seniors are very lonely, particularly those who live in nursing facilities,” she says. “Some of them are unable to leave their rooms.”

For example, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson lifted restrictions for visiting seniors at nursing homes in the state. These types of visits were banned in March as COVID-19 guidelines went into place but were eased on July 1. Preferably, visits with nursing home patients will take place outdoors, but indoor visitation is allowed for those who are unable to safely visit outdoors. Masks are required for everyone during these visits.

Concerns about loneliness aren’t limited to older adults, however. While younger people are more adept at connecting with others through technology, that isn’t always enough.

“Certainly, right now, young people have lower risk and more opportunity to engage,” Dr. Fiori says. “Young people are more adept at using social media and their phones to stay connected. That doesn’t eliminate their risk, though. Sometimes for someone who is socially ostracized, they can feel lonely even in a group of people.”

So, what are some signs of loneliness to look for in our loved ones? Dr. Fiori says to watch for behavior that’s out of the ordinary for that person, including becoming more withdrawn or an extreme interest in not wanting any contact to end.

“Though they need social contact, they may become reluctant to ask for it,” she says. “On the other end of the spectrum, there may be desperate attempts to be involved in things or to extend phone calls.” 

Other signs of loneliness may be a change in appetite, hygiene and sleep as well as an increase in alcohol use and lack of motivation and energy.

As COVID-19 restrictions continue to change, a common-sense approach is the best way to resume normal group activities, Dr. Fiori says. This may include attending worship services, participating in youth sports or gathering at a family member’s home for dinner. Such activities can lift the spirits of someone who is experiencing loneliness and can be done in a safer manner by wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing.

“I try to be reasonable with social contact,” Dr. Fiori says. “We basically try to use common sense and for my family I weigh the benefit of the interaction versus the risk of COVID in that situation. I feel that my son should be active and get to experience T-ball, and because that happens outdoors, we are able to keep a fair distance from the other families. Even from a distance we can converse and enjoy one another’s company, and so in many ways this activity satisfies our needs for social engagement with other adults.”

Dr. Fiori’s own grandmother is at the end of her life, so there is a great need to interact with her family, using a common-sense approach.

“I know a lot of people aren’t getting the opportunity to be with loved ones at the end of their lives and this breaks my heart for them,” she says, adding that a hug from a grandchild, while maintaining a common-sense approach to social distancing, might make a big difference for an older adult, especially one suffering from loneliness. 

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