According to the Critical Care Nurse journal, social isolation can be defined as “the absence of relationships with family or friends on an individual level, and with society on a broader level.” Although social isolation often goes hand in hand with loneliness, it is not quite the same thing in social work terminology.
The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) explains the difference: “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. Social isolation, in particular, is becoming an issue for older adults, 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 Ohio University’s online Master’s in Social Work. Social isolation and other issues affecting older adults are addressed in this program, which can prepare candidates for success in the social work field.
Causes of Social Isolation
To identify at-risk clients, social workers should understand the root causes of social isolation. In a recent 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. Design that makes it difficult to walk may contribute to older adults’ isolation and negatively impact the 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.
What can social workers do for people in these situations? A 2018 study reviewed the literature on social isolation, looking for common threads. It identified nine techniques as being consistently helpful:
- Personal contact. Scheduled contact with someone from one’s social network (e.g., a family member or friend) or a volunteer.
- Group activity or discussion. Joining a new group and regularly engaging in an activity or facilitated discussion of interest.
- Animal contact. Usually with cats or dogs, to 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. Increased interaction 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. Listening to music, serials, and other segments of radio programs that were popular in the audience’s prime years.
- Service delivery or social assistance. This is a catch-all category that 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.
An Ongoing Need
Social workers are instrumental in facilitating these types of interventions. However, they can also play a much bigger role. They can generate research, educate the public, and encourage public and private agencies to address the issue of elder isolation. They can also help to uncover complex systems that can lead to a greater understanding and possible eradication of social isolation.
Recognizing this potential, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) has named eradicating social isolation one of its 12 “Grand Challenges for Social Work,” a call for researchers and practitioners to harness social work’s science and knowledge base, collaborate with professionals from related fields and work together to tackle tough social problems.
“Everyone — in social work and in related fields — has a role in promoting individual and family well-being, a stronger social fabric, and more just society,” the AASWSW says. By educating themselves about social isolation in older adults, social workers can answer this call to action while making a solid and satisfying difference in their constituents’ lives.
About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work
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.
Critical Care Nurse, “Social isolation definition”
AARP, “Difference between social isolation and loneliness”
American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare, “Negative impacts of social isolation”
Social Work Today, “Aging & Isolation — Causes and Impacts”
BMC Geriatrics, “Interventions to address social connectedness and loneliness for older adults: a scoping review”
Grand Challenges for Social Work, “Frequently Asked Questions”