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Many people lose their outlets for social interaction as they age, and this can lead to issues with mental, physical, and cognitive health. It’s important to be aware of the causes and effects of loneliness in the elderly so that you can understand and support them with their perspective in mind.
Loneliness in seniors is a complicated topic. There are personal, cultural, and community factors that cause isolation, and there are a wide range of emotional, cognitive, and physical health impacts. It’s important to realize that loneliness itself is not the only problem. Loneliness can be a sign that an older adult’s quality of life is suffering, and it can lead to a decline in overall well-being.
Isolation can also be defined in different ways. Sometimes, isolation refers to being physically alone in your environment. Other times, isolation refers to a feeling of loneliness that you may experience even if you’re around other people. Both types of isolation can be difficult for seniors, so it’s important to keep both in mind. Just because an older adult lives with family and goes out into the community doesn’t mean that they can’t feel lonely.
Loneliness in seniors isn’t an occasional problem. A shocking number of older adults experience loneliness, and the effects are serious. Here are some surprising statistics about senior isolation and loneliness:
• About 13.8 million seniors live alone, which represents 28 percent of the non-institutionalized senior population.
• Twice as many senior women live alone as senior men. About 45 percent of women age 75 and older live alone.
• One in six seniors who live alone in the U.S. have physical, cultural, or geographical barriers that isolate them from their community.
• More than 40 percent of older adults experience loneliness.
• About 9 percent of nursing home residents report that they suffer from loneliness often, and 26 percent report that they sometimes suffer from loneliness.
• Seniors who identify themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of decline in functioning and a 45 percent greater risk of death.
• Only 36 percent of socially-isolated seniors say that their community meets their transportation needs.
• Seniors who are very socially isolated have a higher monthly average of Medicare spending per month than seniors who are less isolated.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to senior isolation and deep loneliness. In many cases, older adults face multiple barriers that prevent them from spending time with their friends, family, or community. According to AARP, these are the most common causes of loneliness in seniors:
• Living alone
• Having a physical impairment
• Losing a partner or close friends
• Losing a job or other important role
Blue Moon Senior Counseling has learned first-hand how limiting a medical condition can be for our clients. Visual and hearing disabilities are major reasons why seniors stop attending previously enjoyed activities. Even some of the best hearing aids, still can leave a lot to be desired in terms of what can be heard and understood in larger rooms, with groups of people, with background noises, etc.
We have heard all to often about how seniors tend to have most of their meals in silence when living in Assisted Living Facilities, despite being at a table full of people for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When seniors can’t hear each other they naturally become more quiet, introverted and have low expectations for meaningful communication. Often, seniors can benefit from one-on-one communication with a person who can speak a little slower, a little louder and with frequent checks to see if the dialogue is being captured and followed.
Cultural, societal, and community factors can cause loneliness, too. If an individual speaks a language other than English, they may not be able to communicate effectively with people in their community, so their interactions may not be as fulfilling. Belonging to an ethnic, racial, or religious minority group can be isolating as well. Even if the community is accepting of the individual’s cultural differences, they may not be able to relate and connect with them in a meaningful way.
Location is another major obstacle for some seniors. Many seniors choose to stay in, frankly because going out can pose significant risks. When people don’t feel their best physically/medically, it’s often an easier choice to just stay in bed or at home. If a senior lives alone in a rural area, they may not live close enough to their neighbors to see them regularly. Also, many older adults are unable to drive and alternative transportation can be complicated to arrange and they ultimately choose to stay at home or in their room at their ALF.
Loneliness and seclusion can lead to severe health problems. A lack of social interaction and community involvement can cause a low mood, feelings of anxiousness or restlessness, and lack of motivation. The psychological stress of loneliness can cause a physical reaction in the body by activating the fight-or-flight response. Spending too much time in this agitated state can take a toll on the body. Research has found a link between social isolation and the following physical health problems:
• Heart disease
• Dysregulated blood pressure
• Increased cortisol
• High cholesterol
• Weak immune system
Loneliness also has a major impact on cognitive health. When seniors aren’t mentally stimulated by interacting with others, their language, memory, and executive functioning skills can quickly decline.
Senior loneliness can be a devastating problem, but there are always solutions. If you have an elderly loved one, make sure they have as many opportunities as possible to interact with others and participate in community events. Video chat platforms like Skype and FaceTime can be a great tool for older adults who live far away from family members or friends. Community centers and senior day programs can also provide enriching activities and social opportunities for older adults.
If you or a loved one is struggling with loneliness, you can reach out to Blue Moon Senior Counseling. Therapy can be an excellent way to connect with someone, work through issues related to isolation and try to find new, realistic ways to connect in meaningful ways.