Nursing home patients are dying of loneliness

Early in the pandemic, the ban on visitors in nursing homes was understandable. It was vital. More than 35 percent of coronavirus deaths in the United States have been linked to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. But as the pandemic drags on, and as nursing home patients get vaccinated, strict prohibitions on visits are taking an unnecessary toll on patients, particularly those with dementia who rely on routines and familiar faces to ground them.

Chronic loneliness increases the odds of an early death by about 20 percent, according to the 2008 book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.” The stress hormones that come from feeling socially isolated can have as serious an impact on the human body as smoking or obesity, presenting such a public health crisis that the British government appointed a minister for loneliness in 2017. For elderly people who struggle to hear and see on phone and video calls, the loneliness of nursing homes could feel overwhelming even before the pandemic set in.

Social isolation because of the coronavirus in nursing homes has increased depression, weight loss and other forms of physical deterioration, especially for Alzheimer’s patients, who often need more help than understaffed centers can provide.