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.