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Hosted by Editor in Chief Lorenzo Norris, MD, Psychcast features mental health care professionals discussing the issues that most affect psychiatry.

Apr 1, 2020

MDedge Psychcast host Lorenzo Norris, MD, interviews Steven Wengel, MD, about the challenges of loneliness in geriatric populations in nursing homes, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Norris also discusses potential interventions with Dr. Wengel, who is a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

And later, in the “Dr. RK” segment, Renee Kohanski, MD, talks about how, in the midst of the pandemic, we are slowing down while we’re speeding up … and are learning how to use – and not abuse – technology.

Take-home points

  • Loneliness has been defined as a form of social pain; it is more than sadness or a “state of mind.”
  • Loneliness and being alone are separate issues suggesting that loneliness is more of an emotional state and being alone is often a choice. Loneliness can be characterized as deficits in authentic interactions and connection because you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.
  • Loneliness has been studied as a predictor of health problems and is identified as a risk factor for early mortality and dementia and as a predictor of chronic illnesses such as depression.
  • When it comes to treating loneliness in the geriatric population, favor any type of intervention over none and avoid chalking up symptoms as “just loneliness.” Basic interventions include providing structure and routine, pushing someone to engage with others through volunteerism, or having a low index of suspicion to treat depressive type symptoms with an SSRI.


  • In a study of nursing-home patients, 9% report loneliness often or always and 25% report loneliness sometimes; older adults are more susceptible to loneliness secondary to frailty and limited transport options.
  • Loneliness is an independent risk factor for early mortality and a predictor for other chronic diseases including dementia, hypertension, depression, and overall poor health.
  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, most nursing homes are under lockdown, and all visitors are barred to minimize the introduction of COVID-19 to the facilities. This means residents are unable to see family and loved ones. This necessary intervention brings up the question of quality of life over quantity of life for older individuals. Isolation and social distancing have also taken away group activities like communal meals and games with socializing. Children of institutionalized patients might also feel a sense of loss and guilt as they are not allowed to see their loved ones. Particular to geriatrics, physical touch is essential to healing emotional pain, for example, a gentle touch or massage to relieve anxiety or physical redirection to ease agitation secondary to dementia.
  • Two primary means of addressing loneliness for the geriatric population include providing structure and finding opportunities for volunteerism such as helping other residents or completing simple tasks within the institution.
  • Loneliness and major depressive disorder are difficult to differentiate in the older population. Dr. Wengel recommends favoring intervention over none. This means using basic interventions like providing structure and routine, pushing someone to engage with others through volunteerism, or having a low index of suspicion to treat depressive symptoms with an SSRI.


Jansson AH et al. Loneliness in nursing homes and assisted living facilities: Prevalence, associated factors and prognosis. Jour Nursing Home Res. 2017;3:43-9.

Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks. National Institute on Aging.

Cacioppo JT. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2008.

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Show notes by Jacqueline Posada, MD, associate producer of the Psychcast and consultation-liaison psychiatry fellow with the Inova Fairfax Hospital/George Washington University program in Falls Church, Va.

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