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California’s Most Isolated Seniors

Hans Johnson April 17, 2020
photo - Senior Woman Sitting Alone in Livingroom

Seniors are especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic. First and foremost, of course, are health concerns. The latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that seniors are twenty times more likely to die of COVID-19 than are people younger than 65 (21 deaths per 100,000 compared to 1 death per 100,000 as of April 15). But seniors also face other significant challenges during this time of shelter-in-place, including social isolation. California’s efforts to support seniors through the pandemic can help counter these challenges.

Studies suggest that social isolation can lead to increased risk of mental and physical health conditions, including depression, cognitive decline, and elevated blood pressure.  Most immediately, isolated seniors might have an especially difficult time taking care of daily living tasks as they shelter at home.

In California, 1.3 million seniors live alone (23% of 5.5 million seniors). They are disproportionately older, female, and widowed. Many have self-care limitations and a relatively large share live in poverty. Regionally, most live in the state’s large metropolitan areas, but many small rural areas of the state have very high shares of seniors living alone.

figure - Seniors Living Alone Are More Likely To Be Poor, Lack Internet Access

Of particular concern are those who do not have internet access. Among seniors who live alone, that’s 400,000 people. Another 40,000 have internet access but no smartphone, laptop, or tablet. They are perhaps the most socially isolated and vulnerable population in the state.

For these seniors, keeping up to date on the pandemic, ordering groceries and medicine from home, and connecting with others are all much more difficult. With libraries physically closed, a common access point to online services for many seniors is now unavailable, compounding the difficulty of overcoming social isolation.

Governor Newsom’s “Stay Home. Save Lives. Check In” campaign “urges all Californians to check in on vulnerable neighbors with a call, text or physically-distanced door knock” and is working with groups like AARP to reach out to older Californians. With many Californians now working from home, the time and opportunity to safely engage with older neighbors have never been greater—or the need more acute.

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