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Poll says there are still many lonely, isolated older adults, despite drop from pandemic

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A University of Michigan poll finds that loneliness among people age 50 to 80 has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic level.

The number of people that age who said they were sometimes or frequently lonely rose from about one in three before the pandemic, to about half during the pandemic shutdown.

Now, the number has nearly returned to its pre-pandemic level. But Dr. Preeti Malani said even that is not an acceptable level. She said loneliness and social isolation are associated with poor health outcomes like diabetes and heart disease, and even mortality — and doctors should screen patients for it at regular appointments.

"Just like we ask about diet, about exercise, about how you're sleeping, we should ask about loneliness and social interactions," she said. "What are you doing to keep active? Because when you're not getting up and getting dressed and getting out the door, and maybe you're not eating with another person, you know all of those things can add up and really affect health."

Malani said friends, family members, churches and other community members should also reach out to older people they know, to see if they are lonely and offer help becoming less socially isolated.

Here's more about the findings:

  • 37% of older adults say they felt a lack of companionship in the past year, compared with 41% in June 2020 and 34% in 2018.
  • 34% of older adults reported feeling isolated from others, down from 56% in June 2020 but still higher than the 27% who said the same in 2018.
  • 33% of older adults say they infrequently (once a week or less) have social contact with family they don’t live with, or friends or neighbors, down from 46% in 2020 but higher than the 28% seen in 2018.
  • In general, rates of all three measures plateaued in 2021 and 2022, down from June 2020 highs, before dropping in the January 2023 poll.
  • Mental health: Rates of feeling a lack of companionship were more than twice as high among those who say their mental health is fair or poor (73%) than among those who report better mental health (excellent, very good or good). Similarly, 77% of those in the fair/poor mental health group reported feeling isolated compared with 29% in the better mental health group, and 56% of those in the fair/poor mental health group reported infrequent social contact compared with 30% in the better mental health group.
  • Physical health: The differences were less stark but still large among those who reported fair or poor physical health compared with those in better physical health. Lack of companionship was experienced by 55% of the fair/poor group and 33% of the better group, isolation was experienced by 55% vs. 29% and lack of social contact was experienced by 56% vs. 29%.
  • Disability or health condition: 51% of those who have a disability or health condition that they say limits their activity also say they experience a lack of companionship, compared with 30% of those without such conditions. The percentages were similar for feelings of isolation.
  • Living alone: 47% of those who live alone report a lack of companionship, compared with 33% of those who live with others. There was a smaller but still measurable difference between the two groups in feelings of isolation.

Copyright 2023 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Tracy Samilton covers the auto beat for Michigan Radio. She has worked for the station for 12 years, and started out as an intern before becoming a part-time and, later, a full-time reporter. Tracy's reports on the auto industry can frequently be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as on Michigan Radio. She considers her coverage of the landmark lawsuit against the University of Michigan for its use of affirmative action a highlight of her reporting career.