A lone, socially-distanced figure stands at the end of a dock jutting out into Portland Harbor on Thursday Jan. 14, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Emily Harriman of Belfast is a social work student at the University of Maine.

Social distancing has proven vital in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Social isolation has been dubbed the “second pandemic.” The fact is loneliness kills.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that social isolation “significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death” and brings a 50 percent increased risk of dementia. LGBTQ older adults (defined as 50 and older) are at an even higher risk of being socially isolated. These adults are more likely to live alone and be single. They are less likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to have children. Many LGBTQ older adults are apprehensive about seeking services in the community out of fear that they will face discrimination over their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Many LGBTQ older adults have faced such discrimination in their lifetime.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated isolation. Programs that provided opportunity for social connection were halted. Many people and groups in Maine banded together to flatten the curve. Social gatherings moved online to places like Zoom. Meetings and education continued to happen from home. The Federal Communications Commissions estimates that over 11 percent of Mainers do not have broadband access. The isolation that now presents itself can be deadly.

According to SAGE USA, the national advocacy and services organization for LGBTQ elders, there are an estimated 2.7 million LGBTQ older adults living in the United States. A study by the Center for American Progress estimates that 65 percent of LGBTQ older adults have a pre-existing condition, such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease. It is known that COVID-19 is particularly fatal among those with pre-existing conditions.

Gov. Janet Mills recently proposed dedicating $30 million to increasing broadband throughout Maine in her State of the Budget Address. This could provide affordable and reliable broadband access to the 11 percent of Mainers who do not have broadband access. This could mean that those suffering from social isolation are not completely lost in this digital age.

In my work as a University of Maine School of Social Work practicum student assigned to SAGE Maine and EqualityMaine (community organizations working to create an equitable society for LGBTQ Mainers), I have seen the impacts of social isolation among LGBTQ older adults. The disconnect and isolation caused by COVID-19 is impacting our LGBTQ older adults by dissolving a hard-earned sense of community. This isolates those community members without families, partners, and children even more.

While we are still learning about the long-term impacts of COVID-19; we know the long-term impacts of social isolation. Poorer health, higher risk of dementia, shorter life span. Social distancing is critical to protect our communities, but social isolation is deadly to our older LGBTQ community members. It is time to improve broadband infrastructure to allow more LGBTQ older adults to connect and reduce the harmful impacts of social isolation.

If you are dealing with social isolation and would like to become involved with SAGE Maine, send an email to sage@equalitymaine.org. Additionally, you can contact the Maine peer support warmline at this number 1-866-771-9276 or the Maine crisis hotline at this number 1-888-568-1112.