Isolation is one of the most common and harmful problems affecting older adults. Seniors are more likely to live alone and less likely to have fulfilling social connections than younger adults, and research shows that loneliness has severe effects on physical and mental health.
Understanding loneliness among seniors is essential for anyone who is aging or who has aging loved ones.
Here Are 10 Important Facts about Senior Isolation and Loneliness
1. Isolation and loneliness are not the same.
While there is a clear link between isolation and loneliness, the two experiences are not the same. Isolation typically refers to a lack of social contact, and loneliness is the emotional state of feeling alone or separated from others. While isolation is your external state of being, loneliness is an internal experience.
It’s possible to be socially isolated but not feel lonely, and it’s possible to be surrounded by people and still experience loneliness. However, neither isolation nor loneliness are ideal experiences for seniors.
2. Senior loneliness is very prevalent.
Loneliness and isolation among older adults may be more common than you think. One in three older adults in America lives alone, and 43 percent report feeling lonely or socially isolated. Living alone can increase your risk of loneliness, but some older adults who live with family still feel lonely.
Loneliness is also common among older adults living in retirement homes and skilled nursing facilities. One research review found that the prevalence of moderate loneliness among seniors in residential care is 61 percent and that the prevalence of severe loneliness is 35 percent.
3. Isolation has physical health consequences.
The U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration compares the health risks of senior isolation to the risks of smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Loneliness may begin as a mental health problem, but it can also have serious effects on your physical health. A lack of meaningful social connection causes a 29 percent increase in heart disease risk and a 32 percent increase in stroke risk among seniors.
The most likely explanation for these physical health consequences is the stress that results from isolation and loneliness. Humans have a natural need for social contact, and not having meaningful relationships with others is stressful. Senior isolation can lead to unhealthy habits, too. Older adults may smoke, drink, overeat, or engage in other negative behaviors as a way of coping with the loneliness.
4. Isolated seniors are more likely to require long-term care.
A report from the British Columbia Ministry of Health found that loneliness in seniors increases the likelihood of needing in-home care or skilled nursing care. This may be due in part to the fact that isolation increases the risk of physical health problems. Another explanation is that isolated or lonely seniors don’t have nearby family who can provide care, which requires them to seek long-term care from medical providers.
5. Loneliness leads to mental health problems.
Loneliness in seniors is an emotional problem in and of itself, but it can also cause other mental health concerns. Seniors who are isolated or lonely may be at an especially high risk of experiencing depression or anxiety. We need social contact to maintain a good mood, healthy thinking habits, and peace of mind. Without meaningful interaction, mental health can take a turn for the worse.
6. Dementia is both a cause of and a result of senior isolation.
The cognitive effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia can make it difficult to maintain meaningful social contact with loved ones. Memory problems and language impairments affect communication, so seniors with dementia may not feel heard or understood by those around them.
Senior isolation can also increase the risk of developing dementia. One study assessed the loneliness of 823 older adults who did not have dementia and then followed up with the participants each year. The researchers found that the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia doubled among the participants who were lonely and that loneliness was associated with reduced cognition and faster cognitive decline.
7. Geographic location is a major risk factor for senior isolation.
Older adults who live in more rural or physically isolated areas are at an increased risk of loneliness. In these areas, it’s far more difficult to get out in the community and spend time with others. There may not be public transportation or senior shuttle services available, so seniors who don’t drive or can’t arrange transportation with friends or family may be stuck at home.
Living in a high-crime area is another risk factor. When seniors don’t feel safe in their community, their reluctance to leave home may lead to isolation. This occurs even when seniors feel motivated to be socially engaged.
8. LGBT seniors are more likely to experience isolation.
Although stigma surrounding LGBT individuals has decreased in the last couple decades, older adults in the LGBT community still face a number of roadblocks. According to the LGBT advocacy organization SAGE, LGBT seniors are two times as likely to live alone, and they’re less likely to be married or have children. It’s also common for LGBT adults to be estranged from other family members.
9. Senior isolation is linked to elder abuse.
Elder abuse is a serious, tragic, and often overlooked problem. Unfortunately, around one in six adults age 60 and older are subject to some form of abuse. According to the World Health Organization, isolation greatly increases a senior’s risk of becoming a victim. If an individual doesn’t have regular contact with trusted family or friends, they may not have an opportunity to report the abuse. Loved ones also may not pick up on the signs of elder abuse when they rarely see their senior relative.
10. Loneliness in seniors is treatable.
It can be difficult to overcome senior isolation, but older adults who experience loneliness aren’t doomed to struggle with this forever. There are plenty of ways for seniors to connect with others.
Local senior organizations are an excellent place to turn if you or an aging loved one is lonely. They may offer transportation services, classes and community events, and other resources that help older adults socialize. Technology can help to reduce isolation, too, as long as it’s accessible. For example, some seniors may need the text enlarged on their device, or they may require a hearing aid for phone conversations.
Senior isolation can be a devastating problem, and anyone with an aging family member or friend should be aware of the risk factors and health consequences of loneliness. By looking out for your loved ones as they face the aging process, you can help them maintain their social, emotional, and physical health and well-being.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy for older adults facing a wide range of mental health challenges. Whether you’re struggling with senior isolation, grief, anxiety, or a mood disorder, our licensed counselors can support you. Contact us today to learn more about our services.