Mental illness is a growing problem in the United States. According to Mental Health America (MHA), 1.5 million more Americans experienced mental health issues in 2017 than the previous year. What’s more, surveys from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate a sharp increase in self-reported behavioral health symptoms since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are many possible factors that are contributing to these issues, one of the lesser discussed factors is social isolation.
Social isolation is defined as either a partial or total disconnect from social networks. According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated. Additionally, people with chronic illnesses — especially debilitating illnesses like COPD — can lead to a higher risk of social isolation and loneliness.
COPD is often labeled as an “invisible illness” because it’s not always possible for an outside observer to fully understand what COPD patients are experiencing. While some COPD patients may be able to get around just fine and keep up with their friends, that doesn’t mean they aren’t experiencing adverse physical or psychological symptoms. In this post, we’re going to bring some awareness to social isolation and loneliness in COPD, why it happens, and how it can be prevented.
What are the Effects of Social Isolation?
According to a national survey conducted by Cigna, nearly half of the 20,000 participants reported feeling lonely. These numbers are concerning because there are a number of mental and physical health risks associated with loneliness. A study from Brigham Young University found that social isolation has as many health risks as having an alcohol use disorder or smoking 15 cigarettes a day and that it’s as harmful to mental health as obesity.
While the outlook for people experiencing social isolation and loneliness may seem grim, there is actually a growing amount of awareness surrounding the issue. People are beginning to associate the growing loneliness in society with the excessive use of technology and social media which is taking people away from face-to-face interactions. On the other hand, many people believe that social media is giving people experiencing loneliness an outlet to discuss these issues.
Why Do COPD Patients Experience Social Isolation?
Social isolation isn’t always as clear-cut as many people believe. While you may have an idea of a socially isolated person as someone who lives alone and doesn’t go out to visit people, this is only half of the story. There are many COPD patients who have close family members and belong to close-knit communities, but still, feel socially isolated. In order to understand this, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why COPD patients experience social isolation.
Chronic Pain and Fatigue
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affects an estimated 16 million people in the United States alone. However, no two cases of this disease are the same. While some COPD patients may be able to get out and do anything they want, others are held back by symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue, and persistent breathlessness. When this is the case, people often struggle to find the motivation to work through these challenges in order to get out and spend time with friends and family members.
COPD is a disease that develops slowly over the course of many years. So, it’s unlikely that will find yourself suddenly deciding to stay in rather than going out to meet people. Although, in many ways, this can be even worse than the alternative because you might not realize that you’re changing your lifestyle. Some studies estimate that about 70% of COPD cases are undiagnosed meaning millions of people could be experiencing social isolation due to a condition that they’re not even aware of. Oftentimes, the symptoms are shrugged off as a normal sign of aging.
Risk of Exacerbation or Infection
If we’ve learned anything from the past year it’s that viruses can spread quickly and they don’t affect all demographics in the same way. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) hit the COPD community in a way that nobody could’ve predicted, and even now, over a year later, people are still feeling the effects of it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists COPD as “high risk” for experiencing severe symptoms from COVID-19 and this rings true for many other viruses as well like the flu and viral pneumonia.
Another reason the COPD community has been hit so hard by the virus is due to the average age of people with this disease. It’s estimated that most people are at least 40 years old by the time they start experiencing COPD symptoms. But since COPD develops slowly, many people don’t start experiencing severe symptoms until they’re in their 60s. The CDC also states that people over the age of 65 are at high risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, so this is a major factor at play too.
On top of the ongoing pandemic, COPD patients also have to worry about air quality. Highly polluted areas or places with a lot of allergens like pollen can result in respiratory exacerbation and even hospitalization. Because of this, it’s recommended that COPD patients plan their day so that they aren’t outside when air pollution is at its worst. Airnow.gov is a great tool if you want to quickly learn about the air quality in your area. Simply input your city or zip code and you will be provided with a number between 0 and 500 with 0 being no pollution and 500 being severely polluted. It’s recommended that COPD patients do not go outside if the air quality index (AQI) is above 100.
A Changing Lifestyle
Being diagnosed with COPD can be a life-changing moment. One day you’re following your normal routine, and the next your doctor is asking you to make a number of lifestyle changes to improve your health. A typical COPD treatment regime involves an improved diet, a pulmonary rehabilitation plan, and supplemental oxygen therapy which helps to keep oxygen levels stable. This can be somewhat overwhelming at first and will take some time to get accustomed to but it’s well worth the effort in the end.
One major lifestyle change that many people are unprepared for is moving into an assisted living facility or receiving in-home care. As COPD patients age, it becomes increasingly more difficult for them to maintain their independence, and oftentimes, friends and family members don’t have the means to be a full-time caretaker. While assisted living can be a convenient option for most people, it leaves open the possibility of social isolation and loneliness.
The term “stigma” is the disapproval of someone based on their perceived characteristics. And although it’s a harsh reality to face, some people view people with chronic conditions as “less capable” even when these claims are completely baseless. The stigma surrounding COPD usually has to do with physical symptoms like coughing or wheezing or medical equipment like oxygen tanks or inhalers. But the bottom line is that it can make people with COPD feel like they don’t belong or aren’t able to keep up with the people around them.
What Can be Done to Prevent Social Isolation in COPD Patients?
Be Open About Your Experiences
The first step to solving problems like isolation and loneliness is to be more open about your experiences with your friends and family members. It’s not always easy putting into words exactly how COPD makes you feel and how it affects your mental health because you may not even be fully aware of how it has. However, by at least trying, you’ll make the people around you more aware of what you’re going through. What’s more, there’s a chance that your friends and family are thinking about the same thing but aren’t quite sure how to ask you about it.
Speak With Your Doctor
Another person you should be open with about your experiences is your doctor or pulmonologist. The reason it’s so important to tell your doctor is that he/she may be able to make adjustments to your treatment plan in order to help you get back on your feet and spend more time with loved ones. At the end of the day, there is no such thing as a “silly question” when it comes to your health. Chances are, many other COPD patients are dealing with a similar situation to yours, so opening up about your social isolation and loneliness will have a positive effect on the COPD community as a whole.
Your doctor might also be able to connect you with a mental health professional who can work with you step-by-step on how to prevent loneliness. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular form of psycho-social intervention that aims to pinpoint and correct negative or inaccurate thinking patterns that can lead to loneliness. Of course, if the only thing holding you back is your physical symptoms, CBT won’t do much for you. However, if you feel like it’s mainly your mindset holding you back, CBT can work wonders. Many people around the world with chronic illnesses make use of CBT, so you’re not alone.
Embrace Online Communities
Like we mentioned earlier, there are many downsides to online communities. However, it’s impossible to deny the benefits as well. Older generations of Americans are becoming increasingly proficient with computers and social media which can be a great benefit for someone with COPD. Online communities such as COPD360Social hosted by the COPD Foundation or COPD.net’s help center are great for anyone who wants to share advice with other like-minded COPD patients. You might also consider Facebook groups which are free to join and participate in.
Make Use of Technology
In this day and age, we’re completely surrounded by technology wherever we go. While this can definitely be overwhelming at times, it can also be extremely beneficial if we take the time to learn how to use it. As a COPD patient, there are many technologies out there that can make your life much easier, it’s usually just a matter of finding what’s right for your lifestyle and budget. Mobility aids are a great example of a technology that can help you get back out and become a member of the community again. Walking canes, manual wheelchairs, electric scooters, and stairlifts all help you get around with more ease and also help prevent you from overexerting yourself and experiencing an exacerbation. Read this post to learn more about mobility aids for COPD.
Another technology you should consider investing in if you’re a COPD patient is a portable oxygen concentrator. These concentrators work similarly to your supplemental oxygen tank, however, they’re much lighter, smaller, and easier to use. Portable oxygen concentrators are electronic devices so you’ll never need to call an oxygen company to come refill them. You simply need a full battery and you’ll have access to oxygen wherever you go. Another benefit of POCs is that they don’t have the same social stigma attached to them as do oxygen tanks so you’ll feel more confident and secure with your new POC.
COPD is a chronic respiratory disease characterized by breathlessness, chronic pain, and fatigue. It’s the leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the world. Despite this, many people with COPD are suffering from “invisible” symptoms like anxiety, depression, and loneliness. In this article, we took a close look at how social isolation can affect both COPD patient’s mental and physical well-being, as well as offering some insight into how to remedy this. Fortunately, there are many steps that someone can take to prevent loneliness with COPD.
If you’re looking for more great information that will help you manage the symptoms of your COPD, stay tuned to our blog here at LPT Medical. We try to cover a lot of topics that are under-discussed in the COPD community like the mental health aspects of the disease. If you have any questions or thoughts, feel free to leave them in the comment section below. And in the meantime, if you’re looking for an oxygen device that meets all your needs, take a look at our portable oxygen concentrators. We offer some of the top-rated concentrators on the market including but not limited to the Caire FreeStyle Comfort, Inogen One G5, and Respironics SimplyGo.
If you’d like to speak with an oxygen concentrator specialist please call us or send us an email.