Loneliness and isolation among seniors is associated with negative physical and mental health effects that result in poor aging outcomes. Understanding what they are and the factors that contribute to them is the first step toward counteracting them. Whether in an independent living situation or in senior care, long-term care or assisted living, seniors can live happy, fulfilled lives.
Loneliness and isolation seem like two sides of a coin, but they are not necessarily connected. Someone can be alone without feeling lonely, or feel lonely despite being surrounded by people. However, isolation can certainly lead to loneliness and both can put seniors at risk.
Social isolation is an objective state that occurs when a person doesn’t have enough people to interact with. Loneliness is a subjective experience that manifests as distress over a lack of social relationships or meaningful connection with others.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that 11 million or 28% of people 65 and older lived alone at the time of the last census. A U.K. study of over 1,600 adults over age 60 living in the U.S. reported feeling lonely or excluded 43% of the time. Those adults were found to experience a serious decline in health, and 25% also reported having difficulty performing daily living activities such as bathing, eating and getting out of bed, compared to 12.5% of adults who were not lonely.
Loneliness and isolation can lead to a number of mental and physical health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and even death.
Risk factors to watch for include life changes, deteriorating health, mental health conditions or cognitive decline, and living alone.
Life changes come in many forms and often with little or no warning. The death of a spouse, separation from family (children and grandchildren moving away), retirement and loss of purpose and loss of mobility due to illness or injury can all create challenges to maintaining one’s lifestyle in the same way as before. Even small changes that disrupt someone’s ability to interact with others can have negative consequences. Talk to your loved one about the underlying issues and find ways to help them navigate despite the changes.
Deteriorating health can cause seniors to retreat from activities. Issues such as decreased mobility and hearing loss can make someone self-conscious and lead them to decline invitations or take part in activities. Addressing those issues directly can alleviate the concerns and make your loved one feel comfortable again in the social situations he or she enjoys.
Cognitive impairments such as memory loss can make social situations challenging for seniors and also for those around them. Because of this, many seniors end up alone more often, despite their continued need for human contact. Even with these challenges, keeping seniors engaged and connected with others is vital to their overall health and quality of life.
For older people living alone, getting together with friends and family can be difficult. Living alone may restrict their ability to engage in activities due to a lack of transportation, personal mobility issues or other factors.
Discuss your family member’s socialization needs. Everyone’s needs and desires for contact with others are different, so it is important to find programs and other options that meet their individual preferences. Look for resources such as active living programs, senior centers as well as transportation options.
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Loneliness and isolation among seniors is associated with negative physical and mental health effects that result in poor aging outcomes. Understanding what they are and the factors that contribute to them is the first step toward counteracting them.