In today's tech centered world, staying in touch with friends and family members from all over the country has never been easier. With just a few clicks of a mouse or a text on your phone, you can stay connected with individuals from across the world. However, even with all of this technology, there are many seniors today who live in complete social isolation and who deal with dire loneliness.
This problem has become an epidemic in the senior community. As more seniors than ever are dealing with extreme loneliness, the effects are more severe than many ever thought. As caregivers, friends, and family members of seniors, it is important to be aware of the effects that loneliness can have on seniors. With awareness comes prevention of loneliness in seniors and lessen the impact that this state of being can have on the.
How Lonely Are Seniors Today?
There has been a great deal of research done on the topic of loneliness among seniors. While many seniors do live with others, and less than 20 percent of seniors live alone, a recent study from the University of California in San Francisco, found that even those living with others may feel lonely. In fact, 43 percent of seniors surveyed said they feel lonely even if they don't live alone.
In addition to these findings, a study from the AARP also found that many seniors today face social issues that only add to their feelings of isolation and loneliness. This study found that 45 percent of seniors age 65 and over are separated or widowed, 42 percent are disabled, and 46 percent of women age 65 and older live alone. Plus, these individuals are expected to live to at least 85 in today's world. That means they may have a solid 20 years of their lives to cope with this loneliness.
While this may seem like a rather mild problem in a world where heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease take the lives of so many seniors, this study found that loneliness can actually have a very serious impact on the health and well-being of seniors. Individuals age 60 and older who report feelings of loneliness had a 45 percent higher risk of death than those who do not report feeling lonely. Meanwhile, isolated seniors have a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than those who do not experience social isolation.
Seniors in the LGBT community are even more likely to become isolated. SAGE USA reports that because seniors within this community are less likely to have children, they are also more likely to be socially isolated. The problem is made worse by social stigma in older generations. Fortunately, there are a growing number of LGBT-friendly senior living communities opening around the country.
Why is Loneliness Such a Serious Problem?
Why is loneliness so harmful? Research has found that when feelings of loneliness set in, it can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, over eating, malnutrition, alcohol abuse, and other mental and social health issues. It can also have some serious physical effects. Loneliness can increase the chance of arthritis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and even glaucoma.
Dementia is already a real and pressing threat in the senior community. However, a study from the University of Chicago has found that perceived loneliness is linked to quicker cognitive decline and a higher risk of dementia.
Unfortunately, many seniors today find themselves at risk for these issues as more and more adult children and family members are moving away from their elderly parents. This can often leave seniors completely alone and in a state of social isolation. A lack of social contact and low proximity to friends and family all breed more isolation.
Many seniors do not live an active lifestyle, and spend most of their time in doors. This not only worsens loneliness but increases the likelihood of developing other serious health issues that can only keep senior adults more confined. While this is an unfortunately common issue among the senior community, it doesn't mean there aren't things that friends, family members and loved ones can do to lessen the impact that loneliness can have.
How To Protect Your Loved One From Loneliness
Loneliness may be a serious issue among seniors, but it doesn't mean there aren't things you can do to protect your loved one from this serious social health issue.
One of the first things to remember is that physical isolation is one of the biggest contributing factors to feelings of loneliness. Even if your loved one isn't necessarily socially engaging others all of the time, being in a location where they see other individuals and are around people on a regular basis can significantly lessen their feelings of loneliness.
Transportation challenges are other issues that can impact a senior's feelings of isolation. According to the aforementioned AARP study, life expectancy tends to extend past safe driving expectancy by about six years for men and 10 years for women. This means many seniors are living without access to transportation. This can not only lead to feelings of being "trapped" and dependent on others, but it can greatly increase isolation. Helping seniors cope with a loss of independence, especially when they lose the ability to drive, can go a long way in warding off feelings of loneliness and isolation.
While you can't magically make a senior competent enough to drive again, you can help provide them with rides. You can provide transportation options or link them up with senior services or public transportation services in their area. The idea of an Uber or a Lyft may be new to most seniors at first, but they can easily help them feel more connected with the outside world.
New activities such as gyms, clubs, or even volunteering are all great ways for seniors to challenge themselves to try something new and to maintain an active social life. If you help your loved one start using the internet and sign up for social media accounts, the simple act of seeing what their friends and family members are up to can greatly decrease feelings of loneliness. The important thing to remember is that if you see signs of isolation setting in, the best thing you can do is to start encouraging more activities and helping them maintain an active social life. This can help prevent loneliness and depression before it starts.
When seniors reach a certain age, they may need professional care, and while this can be a challenging time for many seniors it can also provide them with a unique social opportunity. Many older adults who live in rural areas or isolated environments benefit from transferring to nursing homes or assisted living facilities. In these communities, they are finally able to be around their peers. In fact, senior living facilities can perhaps make the most dramatic difference in any senior's social life, as they provide adults with the chance to share a meal, live among others, and try new activities.
While the number of older adults who deal with these feelings of isolation and loneliness is still growing, there are ways that friends and family members can be more proactive in helping their loved ones get the social interactions they need to keep feelings of loneliness at bay.