Loneliness and isolation are growing health threats for many of our older loved ones, and the condition often goes unnoticed and untreated.
Despite the high-tech, hyper-connected age we live in, research shows that we, as a society, are lonelier than we have ever been. And those most affected are our older loved ones. Close to half of all US seniors feel the effects of isolation that living alone can bring.
Loneliness is the perception of being alone or isolated. Not everyone who lives alone is lonely, but for those who are, the effects of feeling alone can be devastating.
Loneliness and social isolation have serious physical, mental and emotional consequences. Feelings of loneliness can increase the risk of chronic disease, depression, dementia and death. It leads to premature placement in a long-term care facility, overuse of emergency services and greater risk of elder abuse, fraud and scams. Research shows that social isolation is as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. (Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Brigham Young University)
Aging brings on many changes that contribute to a lonely life. Family and friends move or pass away. We develop difficulty with mobility – especially when we can no longer drive safely. Our physical condition changes – hearing loss, low vision, embarrassment with incontinence.
It all leads to trouble connecting to and keeping in touch with our social networks on a regular basis. The longer we live the fewer friends and family we will have. But how we perceive this decline in relationships is based on the quality – not quantity – of the relationships we have remaining.
The AARP Foundation lists the top risk factors for isolation in seniors as:
- Lack of accessible and affordable transportation
- Health issues such as untreated hearing loss, dementia, lack of mobility and frailty, which interfere with social connectedness
- Life transitions, such as retirement, becoming a caregiver or losing a spouse or friends
- Ageism and being limited by a lack of opportunities to contribute to one’s community
- Poverty and discrimination because of social status, race, gender identity or sexual orientation
- Living in a rural area where interactions with others are more difficult and resources are less available
So how can we help our older loved ones feel less isolated from family and friends?
- Find senior services and resources in your area. Resources such as local senior citizen centers, adult day care programs, senior volunteer programs and home care companions are available in all areas.
- Make transportation available. Lack of transportation is a primary cause of/major factor in social isolation. For seniors who do not drive, this can be monumental. Programs like LexTran /Wheels (if eligible) or ITN-Bluegrass are programs in our area that can help seniors with transportation needs. If your loved one does not have a smartphone but a computer is available he or she can still use Uber or Lyft. It might be helpful to type up the instructions for them to keep handy.
- Encourage and aid your older loved in the use of technology such as cell phones, video messaging, digital home assistants (like Amazon’s Alexa), email and Facebook. Keeping your older loved one ‘plugged in’ gives them a way to connect with family and friends and to keep up on with what’s going on.
- Frequent calls and drop-in visits can make all the difference to someone living alone. Visiting on a regular basis also provides you an opportunity to see how they are managing. If you are a long-distance caregiver frequent calls are a must. Notifying the neighbors and asking if they could keep a ‘friendly’ eye out for your loved one can be helpful.
- Give a sense of purpose. Everyone needs to feel like they are contributing to something larger than themselves. Simple tasks can give a sense of accomplishment. Involvement in community and family activities helps. Just looking forward to upcoming family visits and events can make someone feel included and purposeful.
- Connect2Affect, initiated by the AARP Foundation, is a tool that provides a network of resources to help those who are lonely or isolated stay connected. It can help you find practical ways to reconnect with the community. Take the Isolation Assessment for yourself or for someone you know to see how/if isolation is affecting you or a loved one.
Be aware of loneliness in your older loved one as well as in yourself. Use the facts and tools above in ‘Connect2Affect’ to do an awareness check. Be honest in your assessment and be direct in dealing with what you discover.
As always, please contact me if you have any questions or concerns.