Loneliness is one of the most common problems affecting older adults, and it has serious consequences. According to a 2018 poll from the University of Michigan, one-third of adults age 50 to 80 feel a lack of companionship, and 27 percent feel isolated. Around 28 percent of older adults report having social contact with family, friends, and neighbors once per week or less. Loneliness can affect seniors’ physical, cognitive, and emotional health. Fortunately, there are ways to address this problem. To prevent or reduce feelings of isolation, it’s important to understand the causes, effects, and solutions for loneliness in seniors.
Causes of Loneliness in Seniors
People of all ages can feel lonely, but the problem is especially common in seniors. Aging brings about many major life changes, and seniors often lose the connections and social circles that used to add meaning to their lives.
Here are some of the most common causes of isolation in seniors:
- Retirement and loss of meaningful roles
- Death of spouse
- Living far away from family
- Mobility limitations
- Lack of transportation
- Lack of community resources
- Hearing and vision loss
Effects of Loneliness in Seniors
Research shows that the effects of loneliness are devastating for older adults. One meta analysis that reviewed 35 studies found that loneliness is a risk factor for all-causes of mortality. A study from UCSF found a link between isolation and functional decline. Seniors who reported feeling lonely also had more difficulty completing activities of daily living like bathing, dressing, and eating.
The American Psychological Association reports that loneliness can lead to cognitive decline and can exacerbate illnesses like cancer, inflammatory conditions, and cardiovascular disease. Isolation can also lead to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. These conditions can cause seniors to further withdraw and isolate themselves, which then worsens the mental health symptoms. Older adults can become trapped in a vicious cycle of depression and isolation that is difficult to escape from.
How to Combat Loneliness
The causes and effects of isolation in the elderly are complex, and there isn’t one trick that is guaranteed to fix loneliness for every person. However, reducing loneliness is possible. Here are some steps to combat isolation in older adults:
Psychologists identify different types of loneliness:
- Emotional: This type of isolation is caused by a lack of close relationships or attachment with others. Seniors may feel like they have no one to talk to about their struggles. This is common after losing a close friend, partner, or relative.
- Social: This results from a lack of a sense of belonging. Older adults may not get enough contact with friends, family, or neighbors, and they may feel like others don’t value their presence.
- Existential: This form of isolation can happen when seniors feel a lack of purpose in life. Even if they have regular interaction with friends and family, they may struggle to find meaning in their relationships.
Understanding what type or types of isolation a person is experiencing helps to identify their needs and narrow down the possible solutions.
Take Care of Physical Health
A survey from Cigna found that a balance of sleep, work, social interaction, and quality alone time is important for mental health. Having too much or too little of any of these factors correlates with increased feelings of loneliness.
The survey also found that seniors who get an appropriate amount of exercise report feeling less lonely than seniors who aren’t as active. Exercise can be a very effective way to reduce negative feelings and relieve stress.
The University of Michigan survey shows similar results. The researchers found that older adults who exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get adequate sleep are less likely to report feeling lonely.
Isolation isn’t just about physical separation from others. Seniors can be surrounded by friends, family, caretakers or neighbors and still feel deeply lonely. Despite people being nearby, seniors often describe a lack of connection with others.
Actively listening to your aging relative or friend is one of the best ways to show them that they’re loved and cared for. Ask them to tell you more about the topics they’re passionate about, or most pressing for them and give them your undivided attention during conversations.
Make sure you listen carefully when they speak about their wants and needs, too. Seniors often lose their autonomy as they age, and they may feel like everyone makes decisions for them without asking for their input. Don’t assume that you know what your loved one wants or needs. Instead, ask for their opinion and respect their feelings. Our clients have been known to say that they feel ‘invisible’ as they age as families/caretakers often minimize feelings that don’t seem significant to them. Seniors are the experts in their own lives. They are the #1 trusted source to tell us what matters to them.
Engage in Activities
What we do know is that loneliness is not the same as boredom. Some people are perfectly content to be alone and don’t struggle with loneliness. While others feel deeply lonely even while others are present. Staying active and spending time with others may not be enough to combat loneliness in older adults. However, engaging in hobbies and activities can be one step in the process to feel less lonely.
Here are some popular activities for older adults:
- Exercise classes
- Book clubs, Books on Tape
- Community organizations
Participating in activities with others can give seniors an opportunity to make meaningful connections. You and other family members can join your senior loved one in their favorite activities to support and encourage them. We understand that many people would love to participate in activities they used to enjoy but no longer can due to physical, medical and/or emotional disability. For some of our clients it takes more time to explore activities that are actually possible for them to participate in.
Reach Out for Help
Sometimes, it’s difficult to combat loneliness on your own. If you’re struggling with deep loneliness, it may be time to contact a professional for extra support.
There are a range of services available for seniors, including day programs, home health agencies that can provide in-home physical and occupational therapy, Companion aides and Independent/Assisted Living Facilities. The right options need to be carefully evaluated to understand pros and cons and potential costs. Companion aides can be a wonderful support for some seniors and they have to understand costs involved to determine if that is a viable option.
Medicare does not pay for private/companion aides but many Long Term Care policies do. It can be very helpful to speak with a therapist about options that exist to combat loneliness.
Counseling is another source of professional support that can help a person feel heard and supported. Therapy can provide a consistent and meaningful relationship, prevent cognitive decline, and create a space for older adults to process their thoughts and feelings. Counselors who specialize in working with the elderly can also suggest and explore possible resources and strategies for reducing loneliness.
If you’ve noticed signs of loneliness, depression, or other mental health problems in yourself or a senior you care about, reach out to Blue Moon Senior Counseling for help. Our licensed therapists provide individual counseling for older adults who face a wide variety of challenges. Contact us today to learn more or schedule a meeting.