Loneliness and isolation can lead to serious health problems for older adults. However, senior isolation is the reality for many as our aging populations grow. Knowing what puts an individual at risk for isolation can help us prevent it.
How lonely are seniors?
Socialization can decrease as we age due to a number of factors, including retirement, lack of mobility, or friends and family members moving away or dying. Socially isolated means a person has little contact with adult children, other relatives, or friends.
Senior isolation is a growing problem in communities across the nation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million (28% of people) age 65 and older live alone.
The older we get, the more likely it is that we live alone. As more adults do not have children, there are fewer family members able to provide care and company to seniors. As a community, it is crucial that we do not forget about our aging population, work towards an inclusive social system, and promote a positive perspective on aging.
What are the effects of senior isolation?
Feelings of separation and loneliness take a heavy toll on seniors. Here are just some of the ways an older adult can be affected by isolation.
Negatively affects mental health
Senior isolation contributes to cognitive decline and the risk of dementia. Depression is often linked to feelings of loneliness and disconnection. In one study, 1 out of 6 participants age 65 and older reported feeling lonely. Of these individuals, nearly half experienced high levels of depression.
Research presented at the 2015 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference confirmed that if you are older and lonely, chances are your cognitive abilities will decline faster. Isolation in seniors can be a key predictor of the progression of dementia-related diseases.
Increased risk of issues as a result of a fall
Seniors who live in isolation are more likely to experience health concerns from a fall. Falls can result in injury, physical decline, depression, continued isolation, and feelings of helplessness.
If a senior is living alone, it may take longer to discover they have fallen. This puts the senior at greater risk for serious injury or death due to the fall. It is important to check in on seniors often and ensure that their home has minimum fall risks. VANTAGE Aging provides a fall prevention program, Matter of Balance, to assess homes, teach safer ways to fall, and improve strength, balance, and confidence in seniors.
Physical health decline
Senior isolation can lead to damaging physical health effects. Long-term illness and conditions such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and high blood pressure are all connected to social isolation.
Loneliness can also cause depression and make seniors more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior. One study using data from the English Study of Aging found that people who are socially isolated are more likely to display risky health behaviors such as lack of physical activity, poor diet, and smoking.
Higher risk of elder abuse
Social isolation makes seniors more vulnerable to elder abuse. Older adults without support systems have a greater chance of experiencing mistreatment on emotional, physical, and financial levels.
Elder abuse can be a single or repeated act, or lack of action, that occurs when there is an expectation of trust that causes harm or distress to an older person. Individuals who live alone experience elder abuse more often because they are more likely to fall victim, or as the result of an abuser trying to isolate a senior to reduce the risk of getting caught.
Higher health costs
As a result of the mental and physical effects of social isolation, many seniors experience higher costs associated with health.
A 2017 study by AARP Public Policy Institute, Stanford University, and Harvard found that Medicare spent about $1,600 per year more on older adults who are socially isolated than those who are not. Additionally, socially isolated individuals are one-third more likely to require care in a skilled nursing facility. Hospital stays are more costly because seniors who live alone cannot be discharged as quickly without a support at home.
Increased risk of mortality
Social isolation and loneliness are related to a higher risk of mortality in adults age 52 and older, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
People living alone could be at an increased risk of death because there are fewer individuals suggesting medical attention for small or less noticeable symptoms. Issues may go undetected for a longer amount of time, leading to more serious or progressed conditions.
What can we do to counter senior isolation?
Considering the many negative effects of senior isolation, it is important to address the issue and find solutions. Together, we can promote social integration with our aging loved ones and neighbors. Here are just a few ways to prevent social isolation among older adults.
Getting involved in the community provides a sense of purpose. Older adults with a sense of purpose are less likely to feel lonely or disconnected.
There are many ways to get out in the community. Look at volunteer opportunities, community event calendars, and your local news source. You can also contact local nonprofits, senior groups, rec centers, and churches to find activities in the community.
Do physical activity
Encouraging exercise can be very beneficial to older adults as it releases endorphins, reduces stress, and improves self-esteem. Exercise also increases flexibility and strength.
Often, people can find opportunities to exercise with a group. Consult a doctor to decide which exercise regimens are best to keep moving without a high risk of injury.
Look at transportation solutions
Seniors can become isolated because they do not have easily accessible transportation. As we age, it can be more difficult to drive a vehicle or reach public transportation stations.
To combat social isolation, offer a ride to a senior in your life. You might take them to the grocery store, a doctor’s appointment, or visit a friend. Knowing that there is transportation available promotes social connections and a sense of independence.
Explore their interests
As we get older, it can be harder to do some of the things we once could. But, staying in tune with our passions and interests facilitates wellness while fighting social isolation.
Find out what the person is interested in and encourage them to pursue it as a social activity. Many hobbies can be done with friends, family, or even strangers. Participating in activities promotes social interaction and stimulates the mind. Some interests could be art, games, gardening, golfing, or exercising.
Enjoy a meal
Encourage individuals to dine with others. Eating in a social setting offers the chance to catch up and show interest in each other’s lives.
Some older adults have a hard time cooking for themselves. Offering to take them out to dinner or cook for them can lift their spirits and make them feel connected. Schedule time on a weekly or monthly basis to get together with seniors you know over a meal.
Stopping senior isolation
Living alone does not always mean a person is lonely. But, it can be a factor that leads to social isolation in our aging populations. Knowing the causes and signs of social isolation can help us protect seniors from feeling lonely and disconnected.
Do you know someone who might be feeling isolated? VANTAGE RSVP’s Telecare program provides a friendly phone call from a trained and compassionate volunteer. VANTAGE Behavioral Health Solutions provides quality mental health services and specializes in older adults. If an individual is unable to come to our Akron office, we can send a counselor to them in Summit County.
Call us at 330-253-4597 for more information or visit our programs and services page.
*The information in this article is intended solely to provide general information on matters of interest for the personal use of the reader, who accepts full responsibility for its use. This article should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, medical, or other competent advisors.