Loneliness is an issue many seniors face. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cite a recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) that says “more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.”
With such a large portion of the older population feeling lonely or isolated, it’s essential to understand that the consequences aren’t just social. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) shares that “research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.” Research suggests that when a person is lonely, their immune responses may be altered, leading to the increased risk of chronic conditions.
While the list of potential health risks may seem daunting, there are easy steps to help combat the feelings of loneliness and isolation in older adults. Loneliness and isolation don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand; it’s possible to be physically by yourself but not feel lonely, while it’s also possible to be surrounded by others but feel lonely. For older adults, it’s essential that friends and family don’t assume they aren’t lonely just because they’re surrounded by people—a sense of connection and community with those people is the key to staving off loneliness.
Loneliness Risk Factors for Seniors
To combat loneliness, it’s critical to understand why older adults are at a higher risk of developing a chronic sense of isolation. Sudden changes in circumstances like loss of a spouse, moving to a retirement home, or the onset of medical conditions can trigger loneliness, and many seniors experience these shifts unexpectedly and in waves. Other risk factors, like being part of a marginalized group or living in rural areas, can compound these feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Signs of Loneliness
If you’re concerned that you or a loved one is suffering from chronic loneliness, look out for physical, behavioral, and emotional indicators, including the following:
- Loss of sleep and/or appetite
- Increased shopping or connecting with telemarketers
- Lower energy levels
- Changes in personal hygiene routines
- Frequently mentioning minor problems
- Recurring statements of loneliness, separation, isolation
Support Through Community
The best way to combat loneliness is for seniors to participate in a community that feels engaging and purposeful. Some research suggests that “having a sense of mission and purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells,” helping to combat health risks exacerbated by loneliness. Studies have even shown that increased social activity can slow the rate of mental decline in seniors with dementia. Relationships with family, friends, and neighbors are crucial, but simply wanting to be more connected isn’t enough. Ensure that barriers to physical proximity are limited (transportation and technology are key here!) and medical conditions that make interacting difficult are well-managed (loss of vision, hearing, or decreased cognitive functioning).
Living in a senior-specific community can address many of these needs and make meeting others who might share your desire for new connections. And don’t be afraid to schedule your social interactions! Having set times for meeting with others gives you something to look forward to and makes it more likely that everyone will follow through. Many seniors feel concerned that they won’t relate to their younger family or friends anymore, so trying a new hobby or volunteering can provide engaging material to talk about with your social circle.
Importance of Your Environment and Routines
In addition to needing a sense of community and purpose, a senior’s environment is key to combating loneliness and isolation. Getting enough time outside in the sunlight not only increases your chances of running into a new neighbor or old friend, but the boost of “feel-good chemicals” from the fresh air and natural light can help stabilize your mood. When you’re not outside, make sure that your indoor environment is conducive to maintaining good physical health. Eat regular meals, have a personal hygiene routine, get plenty of sleep in a comfortable bed, and make exercise plans—even if it’s just stretching every morning. Making your own health a priority will help you feel more eager to reach out to others.
Keeping connected to your loved ones and community will improve your mental, emotional, and physical health, so make it a priority as you navigate this phase of life.