“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” — Mother Teresa
Aging is a fact of life and something no one can escape. Still, our culture seems to want to forget this part of life as we know it. In other cultures, aging is an important part of life. In India, families live in joint family homes, with the elders acting as the head of the household. The elders are supported by the younger members of the family and they, in turn, play a key role in raising their grandchildren. In China, adult children are expected to take care of their parents. Placing older adults in nursing homes is considered a dishonor.
Data on Loneliness for Older Adults
That is not always the case here in the U.S. It is common in our culture for adult children to move out of the family home and start families elsewhere. Parents are left in the family home or moved to senior living facilities. Nearly one-third of all seniors (13.8 million in total) live alone, including nearly half of women over age 75. Senior isolation is both common and dangerous — and while living alone does not inevitably lead to loneliness in seniors, the two often go hand in hand. Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
A 2020 report published by Cigna shows that 61% of U.S. adults report feeling alone. This number is especially impactful because it is based on data collected before the COVID-19 pandemic and the very long lockdown we all experienced. It is also not surprising to know that our oldest citizens feel lonely more often than any other age group. Another recent study showed that 43% of adults aged 60+ report feeling lonely.
What do we mean by loneliness? It is not just a fleeting feeling of having no one to talk to. Loneliness is the feeling of isolation or the lack of human connections. Loneliness can exist separately from the usual measures of social isolation such as living alone, marital status, and the number of personal relationships you may have. For example, it is possible for one single senior or older adult to live alone and not feel lonely, while another married senior can still experience loneliness. Loneliness is the difference between one person’s desired relationships and their actual relationships.
Understanding Social Isolation
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over a quarter of the U.S. population — and 28 percent of older adults — now live by themselves. Social isolation in seniors and older adults can be the cause of chronic loneliness. Social isolation is the state of having few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others. Approximately 24% of Americans aged 65+ are considered to be socially isolated. These are older adults living alone, their circle of friends has diminished, their family has moved away, or they are experiencing illness or disabilities that keep them at home.
Since March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged older adults, who are at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19 and becoming seriously ill, to shelter at home with as little exposure to others as possible. These restrictions lead to a large spike in reported isolation. In fact, 56% of older adults said in a June 2020 University of Michigan study they felt isolated. That is more than double the number of seniors who reported feeling isolated in a similar 2018 study.
While loneliness in seniors caused by social isolation may seem like a trivial issue, it can have very dangerous consequences. Social isolation significantly increases an older adult’s risk of death by 29% from all causes. This risk can be equal or greater to the health risks of smoking, obesity, and lack of physical activity. Loneliness has also been associated with higher rates of clinically significant depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Loneliness in seniors and older adults has been associated with a 59% increased risk of functional decline and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia.
The evidence is clear. The impact of social isolation and loneliness can be devastating to older adults. Even those who stay at home as they age can be susceptible to these feelings. It is crucial to find ways to connect and interact with other humans, including family members, friends, neighbors, and others. The more personal connections we make, the less lonely we should feel.
While the COVID pandemic causing an inordinate amount of isolation and loneliness in the last couple of years, there is also an annual risk during the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the New Year can also be dangerous months for older adults to develop these feelings. While families are gathering to celebrate, some seniors may not have anyone to see or cannot get out to see their families. These times may be fun and joyous for us, but for isolated adults, it is a time to endure. These feelings can lead to depression and loneliness.
Tips to Combat Loneliness
If you are feeling socially isolated or you are a family member of an older adult who is often alone, here are some tips to avoid or combat loneliness.
Be proactive. The best way to combat loneliness in seniors is to avoid social isolation altogether. If there is any danger of you feeling isolated and alone, make a plan to stay engaged. Incorporate favorite activities into everyday life. Connect with people who also like those activities. If you enjoy music, join a community choir. If you love to read, start a book club. Also, schedule time to regularly talk to loved ones and friends via video chat, phone, or email. Maintaining personal connections takes thoughtful initiative. Don’t assume these connections will stay strong without nurturing.
Learn something new. Retirement is an exciting time to find a new passion. Learning something new is the best way to keep your brain young. Audit a course at the local university or enroll in an online class via Master Class or Udemy. Visit your local senior center to join their activities. Try a skill you have always wanted to learn, such as playing the piano or quilting. There are bonus points if your new activity allows you to meet new people. Public libraries often offer new group learning opportunities; check out Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Share your knowledge. You are an expert on many things. Avoid the impact of social isolation by sharing your knowledge with others. It could be job-related or a hobby. For example, if you were a chemical engineer before you retired, you may be able to teach chemistry courses at your local community college. If you have won awards at the county fair for your homemade pies, teach baking classes at the local community center.
Give back. Volunteering provides a variety of benefits, both physical and mental. Besides offering physical activity, volunteering keeps your brain active. According to the National Institute on Aging, participating in activities that give back can lower the risk of dementia and physical health problems in seniors. Plus, it will get you out of the house and into your community. Choose a cause that is close to your heart. If you love animals, volunteer at an animal shelter or humane society. If you love kids, find a school or daycare center that needs help. If you want to help other older adults, take a look at organizations like A Little Help.
Adopt a pet. Speaking of animals, caring for a pet can provide both physical and mental benefits. We all need something or someone to take care of. Interacting with animals can decrease stress and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, boost feelings of social support, and improve your mood.
Bridge the generation gap. Older adults offer a wealth of lived experiences and knowledge that could benefit the younger generation. Find ways to connect with kids and young adults interested in hearing the stories you can tell. Start with your own grandchildren. If they are in a different city or state, write them letters or send them videos and ask them to respond. If you do not have grandkids, offer to interact with local school classes via letter, email, video, or even in person. Even the most reluctant kid cannot help but feel special when they receive special correspondence just for them.
Don’t skip doctor appointments. Changes in your health or mood can be signs of increased social isolation and loneliness. Don’t avoid those regular checkups with your doctors, including dentists and optometrists. Be honest if you are experiencing new symptoms or feeling depressed. You may not be aware that you are feeling isolated, but your doctor will.
Ask for help. If you are feeling lonely, isolated, or depressed, don’t keep it to yourself. Find someone to talk to. If you aren’t comfortable talking to your doctor, find a pastor or a friend. Call the local senior center or the area agency on aging for help. Mental Health America has a 24/7 online support service staffed with older adults who can talk with you and support you.
AgeWise lists several service providers and government agencies who can help with all of these areas.
Every human experiences loneliness at some point in their life. However, extended periods of loneliness can be dangerous to our health. This is especially true for older adults. Unfortunately, social isolation in seniors is alarmingly common and will continue to be a problem as our senior population grows. Social isolation in seniors can cause depression and loneliness, as well as physical ailments like heart disease and dementia. Awareness of the problem is the first step, followed by utilizing the tips above to combat the consequences of senior loneliness. Remember, you are not alone, and you are an integral part of our community and culture.