Why Loneliness Can Be Fatal in Seniors and How Why Loneliness Can Be Fatal in Seniors and How to Helpto Help

Health researchers, geriatric experts, and mental health counselors are sounding an alarm over the rising numbers of lonely seniors. That’s because several groups of researchers have found that loneliness is more often fatal for seniors than obesity and that it carries health risks on par with smoking more than half pack of cigarettes each day. A number of studies from the past few years show that social isolation in seniors is a risk factor for a startlingly long list of health problems as well as emotional pain. Here’s a look at the problem and possible solutions for families, friends, and caregivers.

Loneliness is a widespread problem in many countries

As more people live longer—and live alone longer—the number of deeply isolated seniors is rising. The New York Times reported that in the US and the UK, as many as 46% of adults over age 60 feel lonely often. Another study from 2012, reported by The Guardian, found that about 20% of UK seniors felt lonely “all the time.” A small-town helpline for lonely seniors in the UK gets more than 10,000 calls a week from older adults who talk to volunteers about everything from daily tasks to wartime memories.

Loneliness does measurable damage to seniors’ physical and mental health

The growing number of lonely seniors is more than a sad social phenomenon. It’s also a serious public health problem. Lonely seniors are at increased risk for

  • Depression, cognitive decline, and clinical dementia
  • Chronic high blood pressure
  • Decreased ability to fight infections
  • Mobility problems and falls
  • Death from heart attacks, strokes, and suicide

Scientists, according to the Times report, think they’ve found the part of the brain that controls the sensation of loneliness, and they’ve even observed neurochemical changes the brains of test mice after just a day of isolation. Worse, loneliness can trigger a behavior called social evasion that reduces the motivation to try to connect with others, creating an unhealthy cycle of isolation.

Programs to reduce seniors’ isolation

In many countries, volunteers and first responders are learning to help lonely seniors form social connections to improve their mental and their physical health. In addition to helplines in the UK, there are programs to help firefighters spot signs of senior isolation during home safety inspections. In the US, the University of Washington’s Program to Encourage Active, Rewarding Lives for Seniors (PEARLS) focuses primarily on seniors with signs of depression, which goes hand-in-hand with loneliness. PEARLS piggybacks on existing senior service programs to help clients manage depression symptoms, get out of the house for social and fitness activities, and find activities and hobbies they will enjoy.

How you can prevent senior loneliness

Each of us has the power to help seniors feel less isolated. If you don’t live close enough to your parents to visit regularly, you can schedule video chats, hire in-home help to give your parents regular human contact, and arrange rides to social events, the library, and other places besides the doctor’s office. Moving to an assisted living community can offer a built-in social calendar and the possibility of new friendships. If your parents’ isolation is extreme or you see signs of depression, talk to their doctor. Find more ideas for combatting senior loneliness on the SeniorAdvisor.com blog.

Casey Kelly-Barton is an Austin-based freelance writer whose childhood was made awesome by her grandmothers, great-grandmother, great-aunts and -uncles, and their friends.

12 Comments

  1. Sharla December 8, 2016 Reply

    I shared this article with my mother’s sisters and my sisters this morning. I am so pro-sitter care especially if you find one that really enjoys and loves what they do. I have seen the residents in so many memory care units that are lonely …. there’s not enough aides, volunteers and staff to give the residents the attention the really need or deserve, or even family members. At times its hard for me to make time to spend the quality or quantity of time in a busy schedule. I am more at ease knowing she has someone in the evenings and leaves when my mother is tucked in bed.

  2. Marguerite December 8, 2016 Reply

    I am so thankful for having the opportunity to read and identify with article. Everything in it applies to how I’m feeling right now. It got so bad I started to feel like I didn’t want to live. I sought help through my Dr. ;who changed my meds. I hope I hope I begin to feel better. Than you

  3. melanie bouton December 9, 2016 Reply

    I have tried to subscribe but no results, I am confused

    • Amelia Willson January 3, 2017 Reply

      Hello Melanie, if you scroll down on the page until a little box pops up on the right hand side of the screen with the title “Stay Informed with SeniorAdvisor.com Newsletter” and enter your email address into the box you should be able to subscribe.

  4. Jason Blackhull December 15, 2016 Reply

    I really appreciate the insight here in this post and confident it’s going to be helpful to me and many others. I’m wondering if you or anyone else has additional sources for me to read further and to be able to dig a little deeper?”

  5. Any Neuvecelle-Buckles December 29, 2016 Reply

    I have seen my Mom as a very social person. Then in 1996, her 2nd husband died. She was 74 years old and had spent a year taking care of him. Until age 80, she did some travelling, cruise ships to beautiful country but strangely, she did that just to do something. I noticed year after year her friends not staying in touch. Well, I come to the evidence. My Mom did not cultivate friendship. She worked all her life, starting at 13 years old. Raised me on her own after my irresponsible father left. Work, work, work and no time for fun. Another time, an other generation. Now, she is alone but in a decent facility and she sees more people than before. But “hobbies” ? She has no clue of what it is. It is different for each person.

  6. Donna English December 29, 2016 Reply

    Here’s another big piece to that, I know because I’m 64, with disabilities, and no money! Yes, I get SS disability monthly check of 929.00 but can’t do anything really with that to go anywhere on trips with other seniors, ect. That’s a big piece to my depression, and I have to live with my daughter and her family because I can’t afford an apartment of my own! I even went on go fund me for donations to help me build a tiny home, but nothing, even volunteers to help with building it, nothing. I would be happier, somewhat if I had a little place to live independently without being so cooped up in my bedroom for the most part. Anyway, just thought I’d put this out there as an example of another reason of loneliness.

  7. alice harrington December 29, 2016 Reply

    I,m 80 and my room mate died.i have very few friends.i,m very lonely.i,m an artist and I have a big apt.now.every assited living places I,ve seen are way to small.i don,t have much money .many times I feel like suicide is the answer.i feel useless and worthless.i,m taking pills for depression.

  8. Phoenix December 29, 2016 Reply

    So VERY important to find a place where there are people one can relate to. I feel very very isolated in my HUD housing. Thank goodness I can still get out to work given my health conditions. First job ever where I feel appreciated cared about as a person. We’re all disabled in multiple ways. I love sharing my wisdom and sense of humor with the younger ones 40 years old and younger! Guess I’m feeling a bit lonely now merely by reaching out here.

  9. Campbell, California December 30, 2016 Reply

    I retired 6 years ago with great expectations to travel and have fun. But my body got hit with ALS and I can no longer talk, walk, or eat anything thru my mouth. All liquid nutrient goes directly into my stomach with a feeding tube. I don’t taste or enjoy any food. And the outlook is not good when you have ALS. There is no cure and they say 50% of the people that get ALS don’t live longer than 3 to 5 years. And the time you live is very hard because your body continues to degenerate, eventually becoming a vegetable. And on top of all this I had the most horrible life event: My wife passed away due to a medical condition that made serious damage to her body in 2 months. She was my wife and my life. So at this point I am not sure why I should try to reach out and reduce my huge depression. Maybe it is time to end my life, and hopefully join my wife. I have little or no incentive to try to live more “normal”. Sorry for this sad story, but I am going day by day to live. Thank you.

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