More than one-third of adults aged 45+ feel lonely, and nearly a quarter of adults aged 65+ are socially isolated.
Social isolation is common among the elderly and can be detrimental to their health and well-being. Research links elderly loneliness to a wide range of health problems such as heart disease and depression. However, people who are involved in meaningful activities with other people tend to live longer and have a stronger sense of purpose.
Why Are Seniors Lonely?
As social creatures, we need connection with others. But many seniors have much less social interaction as they age. There are several reasons for this:
- Retirement often means fewer interactions with colleagues.
- A spouse or close friends may have passed away.
- Changes in mobility, ability to drive safely and health conditions can make it harder to visit friends and family.
- When daily tasks like getting dressed and preparing meals take a lot of effort, seniors may have limited energy left for socializing.
- Those who don’t drive anymore or don’t have transportation may not be able to socialize with people further away.
- Senior caregivers juggling various responsibilities often can’t meet all their loved one’s social needs.
Effects of Loneliness on the Elderly
Loneliness takes a heavy toll on the elderly, both mentally and physically. For example:
- Research shows loneliness increases the risk of functional decline. This means it’s harder to do daily activities like bathing, dressing, eating and walking.
- High blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other health conditions have been linked to loneliness.
- Higher stress levels can increase inflammation in the body and impair immune responses. This can increase the risk of illness.
- Lack of mental stimulation can lead to faster cognitive decline.
- Lonely seniors are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors such as skipping exercise, eating poorly and using drugs or alcohol.
- Feeling lonely affects emotional health in similar ways as chronic stress. This can lead to anxiety, depression or other mental health issues.
- Elderly loneliness has been associated with a higher risk of death in several studies. The risk is on par with light smoking and exceeds the risks from obesity and high blood pressure. By comparison, strong social relationships can increase the likelihood of survival by as much as 50%.
Signs of Loneliness in the Elderly
Your loved one may not realize they’re lonely. If they do, they may not want to admit it. The warning signs of loneliness in the elderly aren’t always obvious. Karinda Sullivan, a medical social worker with Amedisys Home Health, recommends looking for the following signs:
- Loss of friends/family – Has your loved one’s social circle shrunk as a result of friends or relatives moving or passing away?
- Change in abilities – Has your loved one recently lost their ability to drive or access transportation? Did they have a surgery or injury or develop a health condition that limits their ability to get out and interact with others?
- Difficulty sleeping – Does your loved one seem more tired than usual or complain about lack of energy?
- Unhealthy habits – Have you noticed your loved one choosing unhealthy foods more often, skipping meals, getting less exercise, spending money excessively or engaging in other unhealthy behaviors?
- Change in behavior – Does your loved one tear up or get irritated easily? Have they started calling you more, or less, often?
- Time at home – Does your loved one spend an increasing amount of time home alone?
How to Alleviate Elderly Loneliness
It only takes one or two social outlets to help seniors feel more connected. Here are a few ideas that can help:
If They Cannot Leave Home
Understand Their Needs – About 28% of older adults in the U.S. live alone. Spending a lot of time alone doesn’t mean someone is lonely, and people can be lonely even when surrounded by others. “Many older adults are used to spending a lot of time home alone,” says Sullivan, “but they still could use some help staying connected.”
Talk to your loved one so you can understand if they’re struggling with senior isolation. Some barriers to social interaction are easy to solve, such as getting a hearing aid for an older adult who has a hearing deficit.
Pick up the Phone. It’s hard to find time in our busy lives, but a few minutes can make a big difference to a lonely senior. “Set up phone calls with family members, ideally every day,” says Sullivan. “Staying in close contact can create the feeling of togetherness even if you can’t physically be together.” If your loved one has a smartphone, tablet or computer, you could also try a video conferencing call, email or text. Or there’s always good old-fashioned letter writing.
Play Student/Teacher. Older adults have a lifetime of knowledge and experience. Tap into it by asking your loved one to teach you or another family member something. Maybe they could teach you how to knit, play an instrument or speak another language. Not only will they feel valued and appreciate your time, you’ll develop new skills and memories you can hold on to long term.
Adopt a Pet. A pet can provide unconditional love and companionship. If your loved one can care for a pet, the attention and support can be great cures for elderly loneliness.
If They Can Leave Home Safely
Explore New Hobbies. Having a favorite pastime can guard against senior isolation, especially if it’s a hobby that involves other people. If your loved one doesn’t have any hobbies, ask them about what they used to enjoy doing. Even if it’s a modified version, adapted to their current level of functioning, it’s worth exploring ways to bring former passions back into their life. For example, if your loved one used to be an avid gardener but has lost some mobility, a window garden, a gardening club or online group may be an option.
Find Local Resources. There are resources in most communities geared toward alleviating elderly loneliness. Sullivan recommends contacting senior centers, churches or other religious organizations, transportation services, or meal support providers like Meals on Wheels. You also may be able to find a book club or a local group of seniors that gets together to play cards, Bingo or other games.
Look for Volunteer Opportunities. Volunteering is a rewarding way to alleviate elderly loneliness. Working for a greater cause can help seniors develop a sense of community and is a good way to socialize with people with similar interests. There are all kinds of volunteer opportunities including cleaning up the neighborhood, doing administrative work for a charity or religious organization, dedicating time to a grandchild’s school and more.
Visit. As often as you can, stop by for a visit. Ask about their day and actively listen. If they enjoy getting out, take them out for lunch or to a favorite place. “Even just playing games, doing puzzles or drawing together can be a welcome change of pace during the day,” says Sullivan.
Take a Class. Education is a great way to learn new skills and get to know other people with similar interests. Talk to your loved one about options that might interest them, such as computer skills, art or music, gardening or a fitness class such as yoga or tai chi.
Get Help. If you’ve tried some of these approaches and you still see signs of loneliness in your elderly loved one, get help. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or “talk therapy” with a therapist, has proven effective for reducing senior loneliness as well as anxiety and depression.
If your loved one’s doctor determines they’re eligible, home health care may be an option. Home health can include visits from nurses, home health aides, and physical, speech and occupational therapists. An in-home caregiver may also be an option that can help address social isolation in the elderly.
Senior loneliness isn’t an inevitable part of aging. At any age, we need people in our lives who care about us, will laugh with us and help us through difficult times. Even if your loved one has a health condition or other issue that keeps them home, there are ways to stay connected. Just a couple social interactions per week can make a real difference in their physical and emotional health.