Social Isolation in Older Adults: Causes and Social Work Interventions

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A social worker is sitting on a coach beside an older client during a visit to his home.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) explains the difference between social isolation and loneliness: “Social isolation is objective, with measurable factors like the size of one’s social network, the frequency of contact with that network, availability of transportation, and the ability to take advantage of support resources. Loneliness is more personal and subjective — that is, how people perceive their experience and whether they feel they lack the connections, companionship, or sense of belonging that we need as humans.”

Loneliness and social isolation can both affect people of any age and circumstance. However, as life expectancies increase, they are emerging as urgent problems for the nation’s aging population. In particular, social isolation in older adults is rising, leading to a range of scientifically proven negative impacts including:

  • Increased morbidity and mortality
  • Greater susceptibility to common illnesses
  • Increased risk of depression and other psychological disorders
  • Increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia
  • Increased likelihood of elder abuse
  • Vulnerability to financial scams and manipulations
  • Decreased likelihood of surviving natural disasters and other unforeseen events

Social workers, who often find themselves on the front lines of the eldercare struggle, are uniquely situated to spot these problems as they develop. Having spotted them, they can take steps to combat them. The necessary education for this task can be obtained from a program such as a Master of Social Work, which addresses issues that include social isolation in older adults and can prepare students for success in the social work field.

Causes of Social Isolation in the Elderly

To identify at-risk clients, social workers should understand the root causes of social isolation in older adults. In a Social Work Today article, social worker Lauren Snedeker lays out the most common issues:

Personal Capabilities and Physical Status

Aging adults often have declining physical abilities in areas such as eyesight, hearing, and balance. Fear of falling and other accidents can make these people reluctant to leave the safety of their homes.

Living Environment

Many community settings are not aging-friendly. Building and street designs that make it difficult to walk may contribute to older adults’ isolation and negatively impact their quality of life.

Geography and Accessibility

A disproportionate percentage of America’s elderly population lives in rural areas, which have higher incidences of poverty and less access to community resources such as activity centers, grocery stores, pharmacies, and town halls. Lack of transportation or staffing for senior-friendly sites and activities can contribute to this challenge. In metro areas, where public transportation is plentiful, the elderly population may face challenges utilizing the available options.

Security Threats

Older adults may feel unsafe or unable to protect themselves in public settings and therefore may choose to stay home.

Stigma and Stereotypes

Many people make assumptions without knowing an individual’s capabilities. Statements such as “You’re too old for that” are uttered so often that perhaps they are perpetuating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tired of being rejected, the elderly may stop trying to live purposeful lives.

Milestone Events

Retirement, a change in marital status due to death or divorce, and the death of other friends and loved ones are aging-related events that can shrink a person’s social circle and lead to social isolation.

A variety of factors can contribute to and compound social isolation in older adults. By thoroughly understanding these factors and how they may affect the lives of their clients, social workers are able to put plans in place to help older adults adapt to changes in their situation and improve their quality of life.

Interventions for Social Isolation

Among many other factors, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in challenges and issues related to social isolation in older adults. According to another AARP report, “Two-thirds of U.S. adults report experiencing social isolation and more than half (66%) agree that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused their anxiety level to increase, yet many are not turning to anyone for help.” This isolation can lead to a multitude of problems, including both mental and physical health challenges, and can negatively impact an individual’s personal relationships.

What can experts involved in social work with older adults do for people in these situations? The following are nine techniques identified by AARP as being consistently helpful:

  • Personal contact. A contact is scheduled with someone from one’s social network (e.g., a family member or friend) or a volunteer.
  • Group activity or discussion. An individual joins a new group and regularly engages in an activity or facilitated discussion of interest.
  • Animal contact. A connection is made with an animal companion, usually a cat or dog, with tasks that include walking, feeding, grooming, playing, or petting.
  • Skills instruction. The instruction is given to older adults to improve their ability to have contact with others or to enhance their existing friendships, or to make new friends.
  • The “Eden” philosophy. A person increases their interactions with plants, animals, and children in daily life.
  • Reminiscence. A topic or theme is provided to a group, and participants share their memories on the subject.
  • Peer support groups. Participants attend meetings where they select areas of discussion related to the needs and challenges they face.
  • Familiar music. An individual listens to music, serials, and other segments of radio programs that were popular in their prime years.
  • Service delivery or social assistance. This catch-all category includes services such as increased fitness or arts programs or other social/leisure activities; improved transportation; access to information or resources; or consultation with medical, nursing, counseling, financial, or housing experts.

Social workers can implement these interventions to combat social isolation in older adults and help their elderly clients expand their social circles. In this way, social work with older adults can greatly improve clients’ lives now and in the future.

The Importance of Social Work with Older Adults

Social workers are instrumental in facilitating these types of interventions. However, they can also play a broader role. Social work with older adults can generate research, educate the public, and encourage public and private agencies to address the issue of elder isolation. It can also lead to a greater understanding and possible eradication of social isolation.

According to the National Association of Social Workers: “The dramatic growth in the number of adults aged 65 and older, combined with overall population aging, affects not only families and workplaces, but also health care and social service delivery systems.” By investing in the science behind social work and making the effort to confront the biases and assumptions many individuals have in regards to the older population, social workers are able to better serve their patients and relieve some of the pressure on our health systems and assist communities.

Through social work with older adults and by taking the time to educate themselves regarding social isolation in the elderly, social workers can answer this call to action while making a solid and satisfying difference in their constituents’ lives.

Make a Positive Impact with a Master of Social Work

As the aging population in the United States grows, resources and programs that address social isolation in older adults are becoming increasingly more important. Social work professionals are instrumental in helping older adults cultivate rich lives and maintain their social connections as they age. With an advanced education, social workers are able to build the knowledge and skills required to improve the lives of their clients.

Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work degree program prepares graduates for a career in social work. Graduates help vulnerable populations handle life’s challenges in areas that include aging, marriage and family therapy, foster care counseling, crisis counseling, and human resources. The MSW program, which is offered through the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission.

Recommended Readings

4 Types of Therapist Roles to Pursue with an MSW

Social Work vs. Sociology: Which Field Is Right for You?

Understanding and Coping with Compassion Fatigue in Social Work


American Association of Retired Persons, “National Poll on Healthy Aging: Many Older Adults Feel Isolated”

American Association of Retired Persons, “The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report”

American Association of Retired Persons, “Pandemic Has Created Loneliness Epidemic, New Report Shows”

BMC Geriatrics, “Interventions to Address Social Connectedness and Loneliness for Older Adults: A Scoping Review”

Grand Challenges for Social Work, Frequently Asked Questions

National Association of Social Workers, Aging

National Institute on Aging, Loneliness and Social Isolation — Tips for Staying Connected

Social Work Today, “Aging and Isolation – Causes and Impacts”