Social Isolation and Loneliness: A Hidden Crisis
May 31, 2022Jim Oswald

Two-thirds of Meals on Wheels San Francisco’s clients live alone.

It is a heavy burden on their lives and on our community. Loneliness and isolation are societal problems with all-too-real consequences that affect seniors and their loved ones.

“Loneliness and social isolation are different, but related,” according to the National Institute on Aging. They define loneliness as “the distressing feeling of being alone or separated.” Social isolation is defined as a person having limited social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly.

In short, isolation is measurable; it can be explained through a number; loneliness is subjective. A person can live alone and not have that feeling of loneliness. But you also can feel lonely while being around others.

People need companionship. Living alone does not have to mean that they are lonely, but too often, it does.


Social isolation is a nationwide problem. It is rural and urban, and it is felt right here in San Francisco. “When I first started, I didn’t really appreciate the level of isolation that a lot of the seniors have here in the city,” said Kristi Makarawicz, Meals on Wheels San Francisco Assistant Director of Social Work.

The problem has worsened over the past two years. One-in-three people in the United States report feeling lonelier since the onset of the pandemic.

Social structures are more difficult to rebuild as we get older. The senior population relies on support systems set up over the years and their routine. And those systems all vanished overnight when COVID struck.

In the spring of 2020, the need for services across the city suddenly surged and programs had to pivot to meet greater demand. Simultaneously, agencies tried to keep their staff, volunteers, and clients safe. It was a recipe for disaster.

Compounding these issues, many people have lost friends and family members over the last two years. Many seniors lost critical social support systems. While others remain isolated due to continued health concerns. A significant result has been an increase in loneliness and isolation.

“As society moves on from lockdowns and restrictions, for many seniors, their social connections have been broken,” Kristi added, “and it can be more difficult to repair these as you age.”

Rebuilding social circles has been a challenge for many people. But, for seniors, it is significantly more difficult.

The good news is that loneliness is curable. Our Social Work team has suggestions to help avoid isolation. In addition, the Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness has wonderful resources and additional research.


Often, seniors dealing with loneliness are reacting to the loss of their partner.

That was the case with Carol, who we profiled in 2017. Her husband Roy passed away in 2014 after a prolonged illness. They were both artists and they were inseparable. Roy was her intermediary because Carol is deaf. He was her ears.

So, when Roy passed, Carol found herself overwhelmed. It was challenging for her to manage everything that was happening around her. Loneliness was a significant concern.

Fortunately, Carol has a long-time Meals on Wheels San Francisco volunteer match Phil, who has known her for years. They have bonded and Carol has gotten to know Phil, his wife and their three kids.

That kind of support goes a long way in fighting loneliness.

People like Carol, and Sonny, and Leia, and Carolyn, and Jerry, and so many others rely on Meals on Wheels San Francisco not just for meals but for coveted social interactions.

Meals are delivered with a friendly social interaction that lets the recipient know that people care. It is a critical part of our work.

Meals on Wheels is one part of a support system helping bay area seniors feel more connected in San Francisco.


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