Everyone has been isolated to some degree over the past year, but for many seniors, it has been especially hard. Being separated from friends and family has brought about intense feelings of loneliness that can have a multitude of health effects. But, the truth is, loneliness reached the epidemic stage long before the COVID pandemic hit.
According to the Health Resources & Services Administration’s article, “The ‘Loneliness Epidemic’," loneliness was identified as a health threat to Americans, and particularly seniors, as far back as 2017 during a U.S. Senate subcommittee discussion with a panel of experts. Among the findings of the panel were:
- 43% of seniors regularly feel lonely.
- Seniors who reported feeling lonely are at a 45% increased risk of mortality.
- Loneliness can be more damaging than smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Here’s a look at loneliness, the impacts of loneliness among seniors, and ways to minimize loneliness among seniors.
Understanding senior loneliness for health
Many people associate isolation and loneliness as being one in the same. But loneliness is actually a subjective description of a feeling, while isolation is a structural concept. It’s entirely possible to be lonely even while living in a busy household full of family. Or, one could be completely isolated and not be lonely at all. But for many seniors, isolation does bring about a feeling of loneliness and they often are impeded by factors beyond their control to change the situation.
For example, seniors may live alone due to the loss of a spouse or partner, they may have fewer friends over time, they may suffer illness or injury, and they may lose mobility. Other factors like loss of hearing and/or sight, geography, and lack of technology can exacerbate the problem as well.
Reasons not to ignore senior loneliness
1) Increased risk of cognitive decline: As we age, the word “dementia” takes on a whole new, and very real, meaning. But while many think cognitive decline is just part of aging, research has found it can actually be brought on by feelings of loneliness and isolation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s article, “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions,” “Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.”1
2) Loneliness can be stressful: Research has also pinpointed the perception of loneliness and isolation as causing the “flight or fight” stress response that triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Over time, elevated levels of cortisol can cause a number of health problems including high blood pressure, insulin resistance/type 2 diabetes, and inflammation.
3) Broken lonely hearts are more at risk: For those who have already suffered a heart attack, loneliness can be deadly, according to the CDC, which notes, “Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.”1
4) Social isolation may be the new coffin nail: Although research is still investigating, the CDC says, “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.”1
5) Friendships matter: Last but not least, while seniors may think living a solitary lonely life is better than nothing, the CDC says, “Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.”1
But wait, there’s more! In addition to the above risks, the verywellmind.com blog, “The Health Consequences of Loneliness,” cites other problems including use of drugs and alcohol, brain function alterations, antisocial behavior, depression and suicide, and poor decision making.
Beating senior loneliness
For many seniors, feeling lonely may seem like a curse they have to live with. Yet there are many things seniors and others can do to lift the curse and bring light into their lives again.
First and foremost, seniors should speak honestly to their health care provider and tell them that they are feeling lonely. In addition, they should also talk about any feelings of depression, memory loss, thoughts of suicide, and other mental health concerns. Also important are physical problems like hearing and sight loss, alcohol or drug consumption, and feelings of stress. Physicians are uniquely qualified to address all of the above and more so seniors can quickly get the assistance they need. Our blog, “Top Tips for Productive Doctor Visits” can help.
Seniors can also make the decision to reconnect with friends and family via the telephone until it’s safe to visit again. Calling just one person a day can be very uplifting for both parties and open the door to regular contact and plans for the future.
Seniors’ families and friends can also help by providing the technology needed to set up Zoom calls or other video meetings with their beloved seniors. A smartphone, iPad or tablet all set up to make it easy is a great place to start. If the senior needs hands on help, ask a caregiver to assist whenever possible.
Another option is to call local aging agencies to find out about programs that can help seniors get the support the need to banish loneliness. In many communities, there are programs to provide in-home services, as well as adult day care centers where seniors can (soon!) spend time together. Volunteers may also be available to provide companionship to seniors who are isolated and alone. To find the support available in a community, try the Eldercare Locator recommended by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
For seniors in senior living communities, the slow but sure lifting of the lockdown is allowing more interaction among residents and care givers. This also means more opportunities to take advantage of social events and activities as they become available. Even socially distanced get-togethers can help seniors start rebounding from loneliness and becoming part of the greater community again. As more and more people are being vaccinated, the time is just ahead when seniors can reconnect and get back to life.
But keep in mind, the pandemic alone is not to blame for senior loneliness; it was already a huge problem. To be a part of the solution, consider volunteering (whether you are a senior or not). The AARP blog, “Your Go-To Guide for Volunteering with Seniors,” has a wealth of information or consider contacting organizations like Volunteers of America, Meals on Wheels America, The Salvation Army, or local programs such as through places of worship.
Loneliness is something we at Ganton’s Countryside recognize and work hard to eliminate among our residents. We look forward to again helping each resident achieve a happy and fulfilling life with family, friends and caregivers close by. For more information about Countryside, please call Margaret Nagel at (517) 206-5000 or download our brochure to learn about our care levels, cost, and amenities.
1National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663.