COVID, Isolation and Loneliness: a Brief Report

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Are you lonely tonight?” If you are a senior you probably are, according to Carla Perissinotto, a doctor and a professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco. Perissinotto specializes in internal medicine, palliative medicine and Geriatrics. Recently, she gave a powerpoint presentation at San Francisco Village, an organization and an extended community for elders that depends on volunteers and donations that has been in existence since 2009 and still growing.

“Four out of five seniors say that they are lonely,” Perissinotto told the in person and online audience that had gathered to hear her talk about COVID, isolation and loneliness.

“More people are now endangered by isolation and loneliness than by COVID,” she added. According to Perissinotto, isolated and lonely seniors are at risk for health decline and death. They have higher rates of insomnia, depression and anxiety than others who are not as old as they are. “Social isolation is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes,” Perissinotto explained.

Isolation and loneliness are not new topics, but they have recently come to the attention of the “health community.” There’s still a great deal to learn. “When I put isolation and loneliness as the cause of death I get push back,” she said. Some of what she had to say went against common perceptions. “Lonely people are married and married people are lonely,” she noted.

Dr. Perissinotto was not all doom and gloom. She urged members of the audience to share their feelings and experiences and not be ashamed of them. “Being lonely is not someone’s fault,” she said. “If you feel left out, that’s isolation.” She urged elders to “individualize your situation and needs, be connected, acknowledge your own importance and seek peer support.”

Some elders have a sense that time is running out and that their biological clocks are ticking louder and faster than ever before. They wonder how they can create networks in the time they have left. It’s important not to feel desperate.

After her talk, members of the audience opened up and talked about themselves, their challenges and opportunities. Perissinotto handed out her card with contact information, and recommended the Surgeon General’s “advisory” that calls attention to the “public health crisis of  loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in our country.” Surgeon General’s Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation – PDF. She also recommended a recent New York Times article titled, “Can Medicine Cure the Lonely Mind?” It’s a good question and one that will need to be answered as fully as possible and as soon as possible. After all, lives are at risk.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.