“Loneliness is a growing health epidemic.” These words from our 19th U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthey provoke us to consider: Are our efforts to curb the increase of COVID-19 creating a new epidemic?
Social distancing is the new American way. Not surprisingly, loneliness is increasing in our populace. In a 2021 Harvard survey of American adults, 36% of respondents reported serious loneliness — “frequently”, “almost all the time” or” all the time”.
Coloradans are even worse off. An August 2020 poll by the Colorado Health Foundation found 1 in 2 Coloradans reported increased psychological strain – “anxiety, loneliness, and stress” – since the onset of the pandemic.
Additional pre-COVID research shows that loneliness and social isolation have always been risk factors for early mortality.
This is a precarious life and death balance. We must provide the best care for those made vulnerable by loneliness, while engaging in the best practices to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Ironically, the most dangerous spaces for lonely Coloradans are nursing homes and hospitals. Psycho-physiological research done by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, has provided evidence that loneliness is an unavoidable and aversive effect of hospitalization.
Loneliness in care facilities causes stress on patients’ impaired physical health and creates marked interference with their overall recovery. In fact, pre-COVID research shows that lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social relationships.
Let me show you an example of how loneliness impedes recovery. Or even causes death.
Steve and Elizabeth Reiter had an average Colorado family. Like yours….
In April 2020, Elizabeth was admitted to the hospital — diagnosed with double pneumonia and a blood infection. Steve wanted to visit Elizabeth at the hospital, but the hospital insisted on no family visits.
Steve and Elizabeth Reiter were tested for COVID-19. Both were negative. Even so, the hospital still refused family visits.
For around a month, Steve and the kids could only connect with Elizabeth through Facetime or phone calls. Elizabeth admitted to Steve privately that she felt very lonely but did not want to rock the boat at the hospital.
Steve talked to the head nurse on the floor where Elizabeth stayed, asking for visits. He called the hospital authorities. U.S. Sen. Doug Lamborn’s office contacted the hospital to advocate for the family.
Still the hospital refused family visits. Desperate ,the Reiters went to the media. Elizabeth said, “There is truth that hope brings healing, and we need something to fight for. If someone … feels alone they could lose their hope and not choose to fight, then this leads to a longer recovery, trauma that could last for a long time or even death.”
Unfortunately, Elizabeth Reiter was right. On May 19, 2020, she died. Her death made headlines around the state.
After the death of his wife, Steve founded a nonprofit organization called the NEVER Alone Project. He actively advocates that a patient has the right to have one screened visit per day, with unlimited time.
But Steve Reiter and NEVER Alone need help.
To prevent further loss of life, solutions from all sectors of caregiving — mental health, medical, social work — must be implemented. Even lawmaking.
Coloradans must call upon their representatives to use political policy to save lives — even as we seek to protect our citizens from the spread of COVID-19.
The efforts in lawmaking are not going well. Legislation affirming patient rights — in hospital and nursing homes — was proposed in 2021. Democrats voted against it becoming law.
This means that you have no legal protections in Colorado that guarantee your hospital visits. Your visitation rights can be taken from you. Or your family members.
As our overall population is hurting and anxious, loneliness and stress are magnified further in hospital settings as rights are taken way. Hurting Colorado families have been failed by toxic policy and politicians.
This issue needs to be put before all Coloradans — on the ballot where our citizens decide if visits will be granted, not hospital administrators or politicians.
Support the patient rights of Coloradans. Volunteer. Donate. Sign petitions. Call your representative. Make sure Coloradans don’t fall victim to loneliness.
Rachel Stovall is a long-standing community advocate and grassroots organizer in the Pikes Peak region.