Social isolation is one of the most serious and widespread problems affecting seniors. Although it may not seem like a major concern, isolation and loneliness can impact practically every aspect of your health. We need regular, meaningful connections with others to stay well, and unfortunately, many seniors struggle to find enough social contact.
Older adults are more likely to be isolated than younger adults for a number of reasons. After retirement, they may not have as many opportunities to leave home and socialize. Physical health and mobility problems could keep them at home, too. If a senior has to stop driving, it may be difficult to arrange transportation to visit friends or family or to go out in the community.
This doesn’t mean that social isolation and isolation-induced depression are unavoidable, though. What’s most important is that seniors and their loved ones are aware of the risks of social isolation and take active measures to avoid it. Preventing and treating isolation-induced depression is possible, but understanding the problem is the first step toward fixing it.
Can Isolation Cause Depression?
Social isolation is closely linked to depression and other mental and physical health concerns. Seniors often struggle with their sense of identity as they age because their role in their community and family may change. If you closely identified with your career, you might not know how to describe yourself after you retire. If being a parent is your biggest pride and joy, you might feel like you’ve lost your purpose once your children have grown up.
Your role in social settings can be a great source of personal identity. You can be a parent, grandparent, friend, neighbor, teacher, or a number of other figures in other people’s lives. When you’re socially isolated, though, you may not fulfill many or any of these roles. It can be difficult to know who you are and what you offer to the world, which can leave you feeling unmotivated or helpless.
Social isolation can make daily life feel more dull and monotonous, too. It’s easy for the days to start to blur together if you don’t have many opportunities to see your loved ones. This also contributes to feelings of low self-esteem or lack of purpose that are common with isolation-induced depression.
We all need social support to handle emotional challenges as well. If you’re facing a medical diagnosis, the death of a loved one, or another hardship, you need a strong support system to get through this difficult time in a safe and healthy way. When you don’t have someone to turn to for support, you may struggle to cope with the situation. This could lead to depression or other mental health issues.
Isolation and loneliness can contribute to cognitive decline, too. Speaking with others can be very intellectually and cognitively stimulating, so social interaction is one of the best ways to keep your mind sharp as you age. Without regular social contact, seniors may experience more issues with language comprehension and production, memory, focus, and other cognitive skills. These challenges can make it even harder to connect with the world around you, which can cause or worsen isolation-induced depression.
Isolation-induced depression can be an especially challenging mental health condition because once someone already has depressive symptoms, they may not have the motivation to socialize. You might feel depressed because of your social isolation, but your depression also makes it harder to combat the isolation and loneliness. Then, you become even more isolated, which worsens the depressive symptoms. This is why support from friends and family as well as support from professionals is so important when dealing with isolation-induced depression.
Signs of Isolation-induced Depression
Even though depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, the signs and symptoms can easily go overlooked in older adults. While some slight changes in mood or energy level may be expected with age, feeling sad, hopeless, lethargic, or unmotivated all the time is not a normal part of aging. Recognizing the signs of depression from isolation is critical for maintaining your own mental health or supporting your loved ones.
The following are some of the most common signs and symptoms of isolation-induced depression:
- Sleeping more or less than usual
- Difficulty concentrating on one task or topic
- Reduced energy or physical movement
- Change in appetite
- Memory lapses
- Physical pain, nausea, or other discomfort
- Crying frequently or for seemingly no reason
- Suicidal thoughts or mentions of suicide
Preventing or Treating Isolation-induced Depression
If you or a senior loved one is struggling with isolation or loneliness, it’s important that you start taking steps immediately to address the problem. Depressive symptoms can worsen over time, so the sooner you act, the better. Here are four ideas for managing isolation-induced depression:
1. Prioritize social interaction.
When you’re already struggling with depressive symptoms, socializing can be difficult. You might not have much energy or motivation to spend time with other people, but you can start small. Instead of trying to plan a full-day outing with your family, you could make small talk with your neighbor when you see them outside. Instead of joining a club or organization where you don’t know anyone, you could call someone on the phone for a brief chat.
Try to make socializing part of your daily or weekly routine. You could schedule a daily phone call with different friends or family members, or you could add a weekly class or club to your calendar. By creating specific and repeated opportunities for socialization, you’ll make it a habit.
If you feel like you don’t currently have a strong or close social support network, joining a volunteer organization could be a great solution. Think of causes that are close to your heart, and look around your area for groups related to that topic. Local animal shelters, food banks, and blood drives are almost always looking for volunteers.
This can be a great way to meet new people while also renewing your sense of purpose. It feels good to help others, so volunteering can boost your mood, increase your energy levels, and improve your self-esteem.
3. Use the internet.
The internet is an incredibly valuable resources for older adults who have a hard time leaving home. While it isn’t a perfect substitute for face-to-face interaction with loved ones, it does make socializing much more accessible.
If you’re a tech-savvy senior, you may already have social media accounts or know how to create one. If the internet isn’t as familiar for you, you could ask a relative to teach you. Sometimes, senior centers and local libraries offer classes on navigating the internet for older adults. You can use technology to video chat with loved ones who live far away, and you can use social media to keep up with people in your life you may not see all the time.
4. Speak to a therapist.
While you can take steps on your own to reduce your isolation, managing the symptoms of clinical depression by yourself can be very difficult. If your low mood or lack of motivation are getting in the way of your health and happiness, you should reach out for professional support.
Therapy for seniors can be a great source of support as you work through challenging life events. Your therapist can help you get to the root of your loneliness, cope with your emotions, and find ways to increase your social interaction. What you speak about in therapy is completely private, so you don’t have to worry about being judged or criticized for what you say.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy services for older adults who are dealing with loneliness, isolation, depression, and other struggles. To learn more about how we can help to support you or a senior loved one, reach out to us today.