FARGO — For several years, Heather Fuller says she’s been concerned about the “epidemic of loneliness” people of all ages are reporting in increasing numbers.

“There’s a ton of research on this,” says Fuller, an associate professor with North Dakota State University's Human Development and Family Science Department. “We know the importance of having a good social support network at any age really.”

But a solid social network has become a challenge for everyone during the coronavirus pandemic, and the resulting social distancing recommendations and stay-at-home orders keep people apart.

That’s why Fuller, a gerontologist who focuses on later life and how people can age successfully, is researching just what social distancing is doing to older adults in the region — and looking for strategies that could help others get through a challenging time.

Heather Fuller. North Dakota State University / Special to The Forum
Heather Fuller. North Dakota State University / Special to The Forum

Social isolation can be “such a big” risk factor for older adults, according to Fuller. She says it’s linked to higher levels of depression and mental health issues, as well as higher rates of hypertension and cognitive decline.

Researchers also know that older adults are more likely to be widowed or live alone, especially in rural areas like this where people tend to want to stay home and be independent as long as possible.

At the same time, they may not have nearby family or friends — and when businesses close and events are canceled because of the coronavirus, they could lose their other social connections, such as neighbors they used to visit with or friends they’d see for coffee at a senior center.

“Really what we’re wondering is what happens and how do people cope when their social engagement is forced to be so isolated?” Fuller says.

As of Wednesday, April 1, Fuller and Andrea Huseth-Zosel, a fellow gerontologist and assistant professor in NDSU’s Department of Public Health, had finished about 20 interviews for the study. Participants complete a 30-minute phone interview about how they're coping, their social engagement levels and their quality of life.

Fuller says she doesn’t know yet just how the older adults in the region are handling it so far, but based on prior research, there’s “a lot of variability” — just as with other age groups. She expects to find some are doing well and adjusting, while others aren’t.

But those differences could help “tease apart” strategies that seem to help people get through it or thrive at a time when others might be struggling. It could also lead to recommendations for family members and communities on how to better engage seniors and keep them connected during the pandemic, she says.

It can be a hard thing for this age group in particular to ask for assistance, Fuller says, because many older adults don’t want to be a “burden.” But it might be more important than ever now, she says.

“To some extent, it may be encouraging older adults to reach out to their families and their loved ones and their friends and neighbors and be able to ask for help,” she says.

Fuller says the study is actively recruiting and looking for volunteers who are at least 70 and live in North Dakota or Minnesota. Researchers especially want to talk with people in their 80s and 90s, she says.

The information collected from this study will likely be shared with the general public before it is even published in a journal, she says, “since it is very relevant and important now.”

For more information about participating in the study, call 701-231-5621 and leave a message, or email heather.fuller@ndsu.edu.