Facts About Senior Loneliness and Isolation That Will Surprise You

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Older adults usually experience their social worlds growing smaller, as retirement, the death of friends and family, limited internet capability, and lack of mobility make participating in social activities more difficult. With the pandemic this problem has only grown worse.

Credit: Wikimedia released by the National Cancer Institute

“I was outgoing and funny and helpful, and now I barely go beyond the walls of my house. I do have family but still feel lost and alone most of the time as they have lives of their own.”

According to the 2016 U.S. Census, almost 30% of those age 65 and older in the U.S live alone. As people get older, the chances they will live alone increases. In addition to this difficulty, according to the AARP, a greater number of older adults do not have children. This translates into fewer relatives to visit and help care for seniors. Living alone does not automatically result in social isolation. However, it is the most significant predisposing factor.

Even for older adults who have grown children, they may not be able to see them if they life elsewhere as it remains unclear how safe it is to travel. Even if they live nearby, care has to be taken when visiting if the child is normally out and about in the world. While the vaccine will hopefully help somewhat, since it does not prevent someone from contracting the virus, masks and social distancing will still need to be followed especially since we don’t know how well the vaccines protect against different strains.

For those who become socially isolated or who feel persistently lonely, the consequences can be dire and even life-threatening. The following five facts about senior loneliness and isolation will help you stay informed about this major problem.

  1. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness negatively affect both long term physical and mental health. Loneliness has been tied to chronic high blood pressure, lung disease, heart disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, depression and anxiety. Awareness and self-monitoring of physical health and mood can be an important step in getting the help needed.
  2. LGBT seniors are two times more likely to be single, childless, estranged from their biological families and socially isolated than other seniors. Stigma and discrimination serve as major barriers to support and community involvement. However, there are increasing numbers of community groups and online resources for aiding these seniors in avoiding social isolation and loneliness.
  3. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness contribute to decreases in mental capacity and increases in the risk of dementia. Since we are social beings, failure to meet our social needs is associated with poorer mental performance and faster cognitive decline.
  4. Social isolation makes seniors more vulnerable to elder abuse. The National Center on Elder Abuse reports that research shows a link between loneliness and social isolation and elder abuse. It is unclear as to the exact manner in which this occurs. It is possible that those who are isolated and lonely are more likely to fall victim due to the desire for companionship. It is also possible that abusers isolate potential victims to prevent discovery.
  5. Loneliness in seniors can actually lead to others purposely isolating them. This seems like a contradiction. We would like to believe that when we have a friend or relative who is suffering from loneliness we would try to find some way to help, such as visiting with the person. Yet research has shown that loneliness breeds loneliness. When we spend time around someone who is lonely and depressed, we may find we begin to feel the same way. Unfortunately, the tendency in such a situation is to further isolate the individual in order to prevent threats to our social cohesion in the form of social exclusion, belonging and marginalization.
  6. Older married couples are equally at risk for loneliness and isolation. There is an assumption that older adults who are married aren’t lonely and don’t feel isolated. This is a misconception. Older adults who live with a spouse are just as likely to report feeling isolated and lonely. They also reported being depressed, had difficulties managing daily activities, and had at least five chronic health conditions.
  7. A related problem to the one above is that married partners usually don’t age at the same rates. The cognitive, emotional of physical decline of one partner which can be exacerbated by isolation can greatly impact the well being of the other partner as they take on the responsibility of a caregiving role. Transitioning into a caregiving role is also a stressful change in the relationship, the how this stress is experienced can also be impacted by feelings of isolation and a lack of needed support in the new role.

Take Away

Remember that reaching out makes a difference. Social distancing due to the pandemic has made senior isolation more prevalent. Yet it’s also shown how well we can communicate from afar. If you have aging relatives or friends, make sure to call and text them regularly, and encourage your family to do the same. It doesn’t take a long conversation to make a big difference in the lives of those who feel alone and isolated. When you call for even a few minutes it makes them feel like others are thinking about them and they aren’t so alone after all.

Have you or a friend or family member suffered from loneliness or social isolation during the aging process? What, in your opinion, is the most helpful strategy for reducing this sense of loneliness and isolation? Join the discussion in the comments section below.

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Chicago, IL

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