The Very Real Dangers of Senior Loneliness
Physical problems are good at making themselves known. You have a clear pain in a specific part of your body that you can describe to the doctor to get the treatment you need. Some seniors might not do a great job of letting their caregivers know about all their pains, but for the most part physical pains are problems that are easy to spot.
Emotional problems are more complicated. Many seniors come from an era where they were taught not to complain much, or even to see mental health issues as something to be ashamed of. If they feel isolated and alone, it can be easy to decide it’s their own problem and they’d better just deal with it without complaining. But loneliness (and its very serious companion depression) can be as deadly as many physical ailments if not treated properly.
Senior Loneliness is Common
Some who have covered the subject of senior isolation are prone to refer to it as a “loneliness epidemic.” There’s something to that – the numbers of people affected are significant. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million people over 65 – that’s over a third of the total – live alone.
Living alone in and of itself doesn’t mean a senior will suffer from the devastating effects of loneliness. Those that get out and participate in social activities, see their family members and friends regularly, and make the effort to stay in contact with other people don’t have much to worry about. But as age makes mobility more difficult, limits transportation options, and takes more and more of a senior’s loved ones away in death, the risks grow.
The Health Effects of Loneliness
Researchers have started to find evidence for what many people in the geriatric profession have long known to be true – loneliness can seriously limit a person’s life span, not to mention their quality of life in its last years. A 2012 study showed a link between social isolation and higher rates of mortality for people over 52.
That should be troubling enough, but that’s not all. Loneliness:
- Causes raised blood pressure in seniors over 50
- Has a negative influence on cognitive performance
- Can make people more susceptible to viruses like the flu
- Increases the risk of Alzheimer’s
Many experts compare the health risks of loneliness to those of obesity and smoking. It’s becoming widely regarded as a health risk that’s just as dangerous, but far less discussed.
3 Ways to Prevent Loneliness
Once you understand how dangerous loneliness can be, the question becomes how to ward it off. Tapping into any community you already have is recommended, but you might consider suggesting some of these options to the seniors you care about to help add some new social interactions to life.
1. Pursue new social activities.
See if there’s a meetup or club in your area that focuses on something they’re interested in. If getting there is an issue, reach out to others in the group to find out if carpooling is an option. Whether it’s water aerobics classes at the local YMCA, a knitting club, or getting more involved in church activities, making sure to put some social gatherings on the calendar will mean increasing the amount of contact a senior has with other people.
Research local volunteer opportunities. Sites like Volunteer Match make it easy to peruse the causes that could use some extra help and find one that’s a good fit for what your loved one cares about. Not only will they meet new people, they’ll get that fulfilling feeling that comes with doing something meaningful.
3. Adopt a pet.
Research shows that pets are good for our health. They decrease the risk of depression, help bring blood pressure and cholesterol rates down, and reduce stress levels – in short, they help counteract all those bad things loneliness can cause. Many shelters offer senior-to-senior pet adoption programs, so you can skip dealing with potty training and just enjoy the companionship of an animal that needs love too.
Loneliness can creep up on seniors if it’s allowed to. Keeping it at bay requires some proactive effort, but it can be done. Look into the resources in your community that can help and sit down and get some actual plans on the calendar to make sure they happen.