Eric Vogelsang, director of the Center on Aging at CSUSB: "Being socially active is important for older adults. That could mean going out to lunch with your best friend, but also, it could include being part of a club, or community center, or an exercise group."

As Bette Davis purportedly once said, “Getting old is not for sissies.” And in some ways, it’s getting more difficult.

According to, 60% of U.S. men and 71% of women over the age of 65 feel more lonely now than before the pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 32 percent of Coachella Valley residents are 60 years of age or older—a higher percentage than both Riverside County and the state of California as a whole—meaning there are a lot of lonely people living along us.

This was the topic of a recent panel discussion at the Cal State San Bernadino-Palm Desert campus, “Reducing Isolation Among Our Older Friends and Neighbors,” organized by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). Angela Allen, OLLI’s executive director, chaired the session, and opened it by telling the audience: “Here on this campus, there’s been a dramatic drop-off in in-person attendance at our OLLI classes, events and travel. In fact, (at) the 125 Osher Lifelong Learning Centers at different universities across the country, we’ve all noticed about a 30% drop in membership, and in attendance at our events. So it made me start to wonder what was really going on.”

She recounted a recent conversation she had with her geriatric specialist. She asked her doctor if he’d noticed anything out of the ordinary with his patients of late. He quickly replied that they are all experiencing dramatic loneliness.

“Recently we had an event here,” Allen said, “and I asked one of our former OLLI members why she hadn’t come back to campus. … She said, ‘You know, Angela, it’s just so hard to come. And it was just so easy to stay home.’ So all of these things made me start thinking: Is there something going on here? Is there some kind of a syndrome, a group of symptoms that are going on? There’s fear, depression and loneliness that seem to be (affecting) our senior population.”

Beth Jaworski, the executive director of Health Counseling and Wellness at CSUSB’s main campus, also participated in the panel.

“Loneliness and social isolation really were the result of COVID for many individuals,” Jaworski said. “Also, it often became the antecedent, or the cause, of other issues psychologically and emotionally, things like anxiety and worry, depression and low energy. You used to get up at 6 or 7 a.m. and be ready to go—and then it became 9 o’clock, and the alarm’s going off, and you still don’t feel like you’re ready to get out of bed.”

Jaworski noted that people began interpreting situations negatively. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I had, particularly with seniors, about the contact they were having with family members over the phone, or in some other way, where small things became huge. They were interpreted in very large ways.”

Professor Kristina Hash, of the School of Social Work at the University of West Virginia.

Another panel participant, Kristina Hash, a professor at the School of Social Work at West Virginia University, expressed disappointment at the way people seemed to become more self-centered.

“At one point in the pandemic, there was an underlying message that we might have to sacrifice some older people for our economy,” Hash said. “That wasn’t outwardly said, but to me, it kind of felt that way.”

As people began staying in their homes, that isolation led to consequences.

“Usually, you have loneliness and isolation sort of linked together—and the problem with that is they can lead to premature death,” Hash said. “Behaviors like inactivity, smoking, drinking or poor diets can lead to heart disease or even cognitive decline. Also, loneliness and isolation can increase the risk for scams and fraud. Fraud (targeting) older adults is becoming more and more of a problem.” expands on that topic, stating: “The health effects of loneliness are nearly equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has even been estimated to shorten a person’s life span by as much as 15 years. … Loneliness may also increase the risks of serious health conditions such as dementia (by 50%), stroke (by 32%), heart disease (by 29%), mental health disorders (by 26%) and premature mortality (by 26%), according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.”

Is it possible for older adults to self-evaluate their “social health” in an attempt to ascertain if they’re experiencing symptoms of social isolation and loneliness? Eric Vogelsang, director of the Center on Aging at CSUSB, was also a panel participant. In a subsequent interview, I asked him that very question.

“Certainly, the number of close relationships one has, incorporating both a quantity and quality component,” could be an indicator, Vogelsang said. “Also, do you trust others, and do you feel that you can count on them? That’s usually one of the questions that I’ll ask people. Close family relationships are important, as are close ties or relationships with non-family members. … Also, being socially active is important for older adults. That could mean going out to lunch with your best friend, but also, it could include being part of a club, or community center, or an exercise group. Even if those people aren’t your best friends, it is still a way to stay socially engaged with others in the community.”

Does that mean seniors should push themselves to get out into the world more—even in the face of COVID-19 and influenza spikes, as the valley experienced recently?

“Everyone is different,” Vogelsang said. “Some seniors might be more immuno-compromised than others. Certainly, some seniors may have a different vaccination status. It’s certainly worthwhile to talk to your physician. … But that said, for the vast majority of seniors who are vaccinated and do not have major health concerns, it should be one of their priorities to become, or remain, socially engaged.”

At the panel, Jaworski said people who have been afraid to get out more should not feel bad about that fear.

“Normalizing the experience and not judging yourself is good—not kicking yourself for what you haven’t done: ‘I missed that OLLI program. I haven’t talked to Angela in three months. I’m uncomfortable about coming back. I don’t really know how to interact,’” Jaworski said. “Don’t judge yourself. Again, everyone has gone through very challenging times and experiences.

“But while not judging yourself, it’s still important to self-examine. In order to change a behavior, you need to know what you’re doing. What’s the behavior you’re engaging in, and what would you like to change? Are you wanting to dip your toe in the water and do something pretty briefly? Do you want to go out in the community and walk in nature? Nature is wonderfully restorative for us. Also, it’s a way to interact with others while doing an activity so you don’t necessarily have to be face-to-face at a table and feel social pressure. It’s a way to interact like you did before the pandemic, when you felt more comfortable.”

Jaworski said seniors battling isolation need to set reasonable and attainable goals. “After each activity, you want to take time to self-assess. How did you feel during it? How did you feel getting ready to go? How did you feel afterward? And don’t expect it’s going to be 100% positive every time. So you may have felt kind of anxious. You may have felt tired. These are things you may not have experienced previously—but this is part of getting back into it. It’s kind of like learning to ride a bike again.”

I asked Vogelsang what friends and family members can do to help seniors cope with the challenges of loneliness and isolation.

“There are two things,” he said. “One is to make it a point to participate in an activity with them regularly, and preferably outside of the house. Also, I’d say that the same individual could help find a social activity for that older adult that doesn’t need to include a friend or family member. … Maybe a friend or family member could help by driving them to some activity. Even if you just start with one activity, that’s helpful.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, after he and his wife Linda moved from Los Angeles to Palm...