Loneliness Impacts Senior Health

lonely senior

Feeling lonely happens to everyone at some point in their lives. But that loneliness runs a broad spectrum. Some people feel lonely after being at home by themselves for only a few hours. Others don’t feel lonely until a few weeks have passed and they realize they haven’t really talked to anyone for a while. Sometimes the loneliness is fleeting, and sometimes it feels like it will never end.

There are many things about loneliness that are a mystery, but there are some things we do know for sure: feeling lonely, especially for older adults, can actually lead to a higher risk of serious health problems. It can also lead to a feeling of insecurity, which is why the peace of mind of medical alert systems for seniors matters so much. If someone has the knowledge that help is just a button press away, they are going to be more likely to feel protected, secure, and safe.

Loneliness vs Social Isolation

Loneliness is that feeling of being alone in the world. It’s entirely possible (and maybe even likely) to feel lonely when you are truly, physically alone – when it’s just you in your quiet house, loneliness might easily creep in. But it’s also possible to feel lonely in a crowd. You might be surrounded by others but feel removed from them, or feel misunderstood, unwanted, or unloved. You might feel invisible.

It’s important to note that loneliness is not the same as social isolation. Social isolation is the state of not having much social contact with others. Loneliness, on the other hand, can exist with or without social isolation. When looking into loneliness and what it does to senior health, some sources blend social isolation with loneliness, and some keep them separate.

How Common is Loneliness?

Though it’s tough to quantify an emotion like loneliness, scientists have certainly tried and had some surprising success. According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, more than one-third of adults over the age of 45 feel lonely, while nearly one-fourth of those over the age of 65 are socially isolated[1].

A study from the University of California, San Francisco found that 40% of those over the age of 65 feel lonely and that loneliness can affect their health[2].

Several factors can contribute to feeling alone or suffering from social isolation, and those factors tend to converge in the elderly. They might feel lonelier due to chronic illness, a loss of friends or family, hearing loss, and living alone. That last point – living alone – is a key driver of loneliness. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.5 million seniors live alone. And many of them have suffered a loss that leads to more isolation; among those 75 years and up who have been married, 58% of women and 28% of men had suffered the death of a spouse[3].

Why Do Some People Get Lonely While Others Rarely Do?

That’s a good question that scientists have been trying to answer. Some studies suggest that losing a sense of connection can change a person’s view of the world and trigger a biological defense mechanism. Loneliness might actually change the cells in the immune system and lead to more inflammation, which can increase the risk of chronic diseases. This inflammation eventually leads to more wear and tear on the body, which can lead to a weakened immune system, which makes it tougher to fight off illnesses[4].

There are some life-changing events that can trigger loneliness. The grief of losing a spouse or partner has long been known to bring loneliness along with it, as well as the social isolation one might feel when they lose touch with their spouse’s circle of friends. Those who are separated from friends and family, have issues with mobility, have already retired, and have a lack of transportation are at higher risk.

It might also come down to who you are. Some studies suggest that a tendency to loneliness can be inherited. And those who are members of the LGBTQ community report higher rates of loneliness, as well as minorities and immigrants. These individuals might have to contend with a wide variety of problems, including stigma, discrimination, issues with family dynamics and community, and in the case of immigrants, potential language barriers[5].

How Loneliness Can Affect Your Health

There have been numerous studies into loneliness, social isolation, and what happens to the mental and physical health of those who feel so isolated. According to the CDC, studies on adults aged 50 and older found the following[6]:

·         Being socially isolated increases a person’s risk of premature death. The risk rivals that of obesity, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, social isolation can be as damaging to the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day[7].

·         Those who are lonely are 50% more likely to develop dementia. Other studies put the number at an even higher rate of 64%, and point out that while social isolation plays a role, it’s the feeling of loneliness that seems to have the greatest impact[8].

·         Social isolation increases heart disease risk by 29% and the risk of stroke by 32%.

·         Those who have heart failure have a 68% increased risk of hospitalization and a 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

·         They suffer from higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

·         After surgery for coronary bypass, those who reported loneliness had a mortality rate that was five times higher than that of other patients at the 30-day post-surgery mark[9].

·         Something as simple as the common cold can be much worse for those who are lonely – according to the American Psychological Association, a person can have symptoms that are 5% worse than those who have a robust social system[10].

That’s a lot of evidence that loneliness and social isolation are serious problems for senior health. So what can we do about it?

How to Alleviate Loneliness and Social Isolation

The good news is that there are many ways to help alleviate social isolation and in turn, hopefully lift the burden of loneliness for seniors. Here are some of the good ways to help:

Spot the Signs. Be aware of the signs that your loved one might be lonely. This can include depression, anxiety, a feeling of hopelessness, feeling listless and not wanting to do anything, speaking in all or mostly negative terms, suffering from a chronic health condition, failing memory, loss of hearing, or a fear of falling.

Find Productivity. Those who engage in something meaningful to them are often in a much better mood, no matter their age. But this can matter even more to seniors, who might have let hobbies and interests fall to the wayside over the years – or worse, they might feel as though they are no longer able to do the things they used to do, and thus aren’t contributing to society or their community. Finding something meaningful for them to do, from serving at their local community center to working with the downtown business bureau, might help.

Alleviate the Stigma. Many who live with chronic health conditions might face serious challenges when leaving the home, especially if those conditions include issues with mobility. They might be ashamed of the signs of aging and might not want to deal with any negative attention if they are using a wheelchair, oxygen, a walker, and the like. It might help to talk with these individuals about going out, taking them to their favorite places, or helping them meet up with friends who might be in the same boat.

Find Time for Regular Communication. Unfortunately, there can be an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality that keeps us from reaching out to communicate with elderly relatives or friends who are aging at home. This is especially true when you factor in the generational gap in many families – the grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, often see the elderly family members as being of an entirely different world and wonder what they might have in common. It’s important to foster regular communication as much as possible. Anything from a card saying you are thinking of them to regular visits is always a wonderful idea.

Foster Independence. Helping seniors be more independent can be the key to alleviating loneliness. A great way to do this is with medical alert technology. The fear of falling can keep many seniors from doing things they might want to do, especially outside the home. A medical alert system with fall detection is a good way to provide them with peace of mind. A medical alert pendant for on-the-go assistance can help them feel more confident in doing things around town, like going to the grocery store on their own.

Provide Transportation. Those who can no longer drive safely or don’t have the mobility to use a vehicle – or to walk to the places they want to go – can feel incredibly frustrated and isolated. Help this problem by giving them the opportunity for transportation. This might be a local bus or taxi, or it might be a loved one taking them to where they want to go on certain days of the week. Simply getting out of the house can work wonders. Eldercare Locator might be able to help you find transportation in the area.

Introduce New Hobbies. As we grow older, hobbies we used to enjoy might fall to the wayside. Along with that, we lose the community that surrounded those hobbies. For example, if your loved one enjoyed mountain biking and had a group of friends to do it with but no longer has the mobility to get on a bike, they might be missing that aspect of their life. Getting them involved with senior programs at your local gym might give them the physical and mental outlet that biking once did.

Take Advantage of Social Programs. There are programs designed for caring for seniors that can go a long way toward alleviating the social isolation and loneliness many of them feel. Meals On Wheels is a popular program that gives seniors not only the nutrition they need but a friendly face to see every day. That simple visit can lift their spirits. The Retired Senior Volunteer Program offers a wealth of opportunities for the elderly to stay active and do something meaningful. USAging can provide more information on opportunities in your area.

Get Peace of Mind

Those who live alone might worry about facing emergencies or health events alone. Everyone should have the peace of mind of knowing that they are truly not alone – that there is someone there to help them if they need it, around the clock, every day. Alert1 Medical Alert Systems can provide that peace of mind. The person wearing the medical alert watch, bracelet or pendant will know that at the touch of a button, they will be connected to a friendly and professional person at the Command Center, who will then get in touch with the necessary assistance for them – whether that is a friend, family member, neighbor, or emergency services. They will then stay on the line until that help arrives. Peace of mind is invaluable, but especially if it helps remind a senior that they aren’t entirely isolated after all.