Social isolation means having little to no social contact – lacking connection with friends, family/whānau and your community. Social isolation can negatively affect your physical and mental health.
Key points about social isolation
- Social isolation means having little to no social contact and few people to interact with regularly.
- Social isolation is different from loneliness. Loneliness is feeling sad or distressed about being by yourself or not being connected to the world around you – even if you have lots of social contact.
- While social isolation can affect people of any age, older people are particularly vulnerable to social isolation due to the loss of friends and family/whānau, deteriorating health and mobility, or reduced income.
- Being socially isolated for a long period of time can put you at greater risk of mental health issues such as depression. It is also linked with lowered immunity, cardiovascular disease, problems with remembering and concentrating, and premature death.
- There are simple things you can do to reduce your social isolation and become more socially connected, and there are a number of services and agencies that can help.
What is social isolation?
Social isolation means having little to no social contact and few people to interact with regularly. If you are socially isolated you may:
- stay at home for long periods of time
- have little or no contact with friends, family/whānau and acquaintances
- not be involved in the community
- have limited access to services.
You can be socially isolated on purpose – you may choose to keep to yourself. Or you may feel socially isolated and wish for more social contact than you have.
Social isolation is different from loneliness. Loneliness is feeling sad or distressed about being by yourself or not being connected to the world around you – even if you have lots of social contact. Read more about loneliness.
What causes social isolation?
You can experience social isolation at any age or stage of life.
You are more likely to experience social isolation if you:
- live alone
- don’t have access to transport or can’t leave your home
- are in poor health, eg, if you have a long-term illness or disability
- find it difficult to meet new people
- have relocated to a new and different environment
- have lost a loved one or friends due to death or relocation
- are separated from your family/whānau
- have had a major life change, such as retiring
- are unemployed or experience financial hardship
- are a caregiver
- live rurally
- live in an unsafe or hard to reach neighbourhood or community
- have a small social network and/or not enough social support
- belong to an ethnic, religious or other cultural minority group or the LGBTQI+ community
- experience family violence
- have trouble hearing
- have language barriers
- have psychological or cognitive challenges, eg, depression.
Loneliness can also lead to social isolation. If you are lonely, you may feel insecure, abandoned, unwanted or other negative emotions. These feelings may lead you to withdraw and have less contact with you social networks over time.
In a recent study (before the COVID-19 pandemic), the following groups of people were most at risk of feeling socially isolated in Aotearoa New Zealand:
- people who were unemployed
- people who have had a disability
- migrants to Aotearoa New Zealand
- people living in rural areas
- people identifying as Asian
- people aged 65 or over.
Older people are particularly vulnerable to social isolation or loneliness due to loss of friends and family/whānau, deteriorating health and mobility, or reduced income.
What does social isolation do to you?
Being socially isolated for a long period of time can have a negative impact on your physical health and mental wellbeing. Social isolation has been linked to cognitive impairment, reduced immunity and a higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Social isolation can also increase your risk of experiencing mental health issues such as depression, dementia, social anxiety and low self-esteem. Being socially isolated puts you at increased risk of dying prematurely.
What can I do to overcome social isolation?
Making and keeping up social connections is the key to overcoming social isolation. Staying socially connected can help your physical and mental wellbeing.
Here are a few steps you can take:
- Look after your wellbeing. Things like eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and getting out of the house can lift your mood and confidence.
- Take small steps to be around other people. Go for a coffee or to the shops and smile at the cashier, smile or say hello at people you pass on the footpath, make small talk while in a queue, etc.
- If you have a dog, go for a walk with the dog and smile at or say hello to neighbours you walk past.
- Reach out to your family/whānau and friends. Reply to an email, ring someone for a chat or meet for a coffee. Technology can be a big help – try texting, calling or having a video chat with friends and loved ones.
- Join a club or group. Get involved in something that interests you – a book club, a sewing group, a walking group. Or volunteer for a cause or charity that you enjoy.
- Visit a local marae and see what’s happening.
- Visit a local church or place of religious worship. They often have groups you can join.
- Keep learning. Enrol in an online or in-person course, or attend a talk or seminar in your community.
- Be patient and keep trying. It can take several conversations before you make a new friend.
- Check out resources and programmes at your local Age Concern, library, community centre or Citizens Advice Buruea (CAB).
- Browse community newspapers to see what activities are happening near you.
- Older adults can use your SuperGold card to go to places.
What support is available with social isolation?
There are many places you can go if you are feeling socially isolated.
- Your local Age Concern may have an Accredited Visiting Service that provides regular visits to older people who would like more company. Your local Age Concern can also tell you about social activities and services for older people in your area.
- The Salvation Army’s Senior Services programme provides regular visits to older people.
- St John’s Caring Caller service provides regular phone calls to people who live alone or feel a bit lonely.
- Rural Women NZ provides members with social and business networking opportunities.
- MenzSheds are provide a space for older men to share their skills and work on practical tasks individually or as a group.
- Let’s End Loneliness provides ideas for becoming more socially connected, and a list of support resources.
- Neighbourhood Support brings people together to create safe, resilient and connected communities.
- RSA clubs support service men and women and their families/whānau and can be a good place to socialise.
- The SuperSeniors website has an extensive list of places to find social connection and support.
- CABs have a community directory of local services and organisations, including a list of local libraries.
The following links provide further information about social isolation. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.
Information, social isolation checklist, services that can help SuperSeniors Ministry of Social Development, NZ
Loneliness New Zealand
Loneliness and social isolation HealthInfo, NZ
Isolation Good Therapy, US
Loneliness and social isolation – tips for staying connected National Institute on Aging, US
Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks National Institute on Aging, US
What is social isolation? No Isolation, Norway
- Short report: Social isolation, loneliness and COVID-19 Social Wellbeing Agency, NZ, 2020
- Social connectedness and wellbeing literature review Ministry of Social Development, NZ, 2018
- Framework for isolation in adults over 50 AARP Foundation, US, 2012
- Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: A meta-analytic review Perspectives on Psychological Science, US, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015
- Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review PLOS Medicine, US, 2010
- Psychological consequences of social isolation during COVID-19 outbreak Frontiers in Psychology, 2020
- Loneliness and social isolation linked to serious health conditions Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, US, 2021
Dr Rosie Dobson is a Health Psychologist and Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Health Innovation at the University of Auckland. Her work focuses on designing and evaluating digital health tools to provide accessible support to people within their daily lives.