Social isolation can have devastating effects physically, mentally, and emotionally for older adults, a correlation that often goes unrecognized and can, potentially, result in death. Studies have shown that loneliness can increase risk of death for older adults by 26 percent, and this is true whether the individual says they feel lonely or not.
Nearly one third of older adults, ages 65+ living outside a nursing home or hospital, live alone; with the likelihood of living alone increasing as they age. While isolation may not be the cause of death, it is always a risk factor1and 43% of adults over the age of 65 living alone report feeling lonely on a regular basis. Isolation can reduce access to needed resources, contribute to misutilization of healthcare services, and is associated with an increased risk for life threatening health conditions such as falls, re-hospitalization, and even dementia.[4,5]
Loneliness can be a greater risk to the senior’s health than smoking, sedentary lifestyle, poor nutrition and obesity.
Senior isolation exists at many levels including individual, family, community, and societal, which can make it difficult to recognize and address. It results from living far away from family and friends, the loss of a spouse or sibling, cognitive decline, impairment in mobility and senses, and/or changes to socioeconomic and health status. As seniors age their inner circles become smaller due to friends and family moving or passing away, their ability to continue to participate in hobbies declines due to impairment in mobility and function. Further, living far away from family can make regular communication difficult.
The impact of these changes can be physical, mental, and emotional; isolated seniors have a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline. A decline in the ability to perform activities of daily living, of course, accelerates the need for in-home assistance and support, or a move to assisted living. It is extremely important, then, to recognize and address isolation, whether through face-to-face interaction, regular phone calls, apps like Facetime, talking with neighbors and friends, or specialized programs focused on this very issue.
To identify senior isolation, consider the following:
- Reports of loneliness
- A recent death of a loved one or close friend ora move away from or by close friends
- Accelerated hearing or vision loss or onset of other physical disability
- Recent inability to drive
- Decreased desire to socialize or engage inactivities or conversations previously of interest
- Observed or self-reported changes in health status including weight, appetite, sleep, and cognition
To understand senior isolation, consider the following:
- Actively listen to your loved one and clarify your understanding of what they are telling you. At the same time, be observant of subtle changes in their behavior, likes and dislikes, and their physical and emotional health.
- Not all loneliness is permanent nor a significant problem; it can come and go or be mild; it makes sense to keep this in mind.
- Work with the senior your concerned about to develop a plan of action to reduce isolation in a way that is meaningful and engaging to them. Loneliness is often the feeling of no longer being valued; it’s important that suggesting new activities be linked to something that brings a sense of value rather than just doing something because it’s something to do.
To diminish the effects of senior isolation, older adults may want to consider the following:
- Address any physical issues that may be keeping the senior from socializing such as incontinence, hearing and vision tests, and proving or arranging for transportation.
- Volunteering through programs such as tutoring children, helping at a daycare, interacting with the animals at the local shelter, or participating in more religious community activities. These are all great ways to reduce isolation and increase self-worth.
- Joining a club or organization, what hobby does the senior love? Is there a local group in the area they could meet with? This could be an opportunity to rediscover a passion.
- Using technology such as Amazon’s Alexa, GoogleHome, or Apple’s Facetime. Face-to-face conversations are much more personal than a regular phone call or letter. These technologies are also very easy to use and can be voice activated for those with vision or arthritis difficulties.
- Talking about events in their life that others(grandchildren, community groups) would find interesting (military service, career, hobbies, and such).
- Most importantly, it is the thought that counts. Small gestures such as a card, quick phone call, or stopping in for a hello can make a big difference. It doesn’t take an entire slate of activities to reduce isolation, it only takes recognition and a thoughtful approach.
Isolation and loneliness can kill. They can have a snowballing impact on an older adults’ health. However, by taking time to understand what is going on in their life, listen to what they have to say, and utilize resources valuable to both yourself and them, you can combat social isolation and enhance the quality of life so that aging can take place with dignity and some of the known challenges, and worst outcomes, can be avoided.