Loneliness isn’t merely a feeling; it’s also a physiological reaction in the body. Not unlike other forms of stress, it can have an impact not only on our sense of wellbeing but also on our physical health. In some circumstances, chronic loneliness can be about as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. But precisely what are the effects of loneliness on elderly people, and how can we help the elderly with loneliness?
The US Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about a third of older adults live alone. That doesn’t necessarily mean those individuals are lonely or isolated, but it does mean they could be at risk. Of course, experiencing a little loneliness on occasion isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it can motivate a person to connect with others.
But when loneliness is experienced regularly, those negative feelings can become a serious health risk. Loneliness has been shown to increase the risk of obesity, accelerate cognitive decline, death after major surgery, and even the risk of substance abuse.
Signs of Loneliness in Elderly Adults
Many signs of loneliness are also signs of depression. That can include changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating, difficulty making decisions, reacting irrationally, over-sleeping, difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in hobbies, and increased anxiety.
It’s worth noting that just because a person is happily married, or regularly connects with friends, doesn’t necessarily mean they are unlikely to experience loneliness. Emotional loneliness involves a lack of intimate relationships. But social loneliness, on the other hand, involves is a lack of contact with friends, family, and community.
Those two are also distinct from collective loneliness, which is when a person feels they are not valued by the broader community. And making these kinds of distinctions can be critical for properly addressing these kinds of problems with senior loneliness.
Elderly Loneliness & Isolation
It’s often said that humans are social animals, and you can certainly see that in research. One study estimates that social isolation can increase a person’s risk of dementia by as much as 50%. Similar research has found poor social relationships can increase a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke by around 30%. Isolation also can lead to a higher risk of elder abuse because abuse is less likely to be reported.
It’s estimated about a quarter of adults 65 and older are socially isolated -- and there are countless reasons why a person might isolate themselves. They might be alienated because of a health condition or memory problem, or they may be suffering from the loss of a spouse or a friend. But as with loneliness, prolonged isolation can carry severe health risks for older adults, which is why it’s important to address the problem head-on.
Fixing Elder Loneliness
Many of the best solutions to reducing loneliness in the elderly are very straightforward, but they all start with identifying the root of the problem. For instance, seniors who need to give up their ability to drive may end up becoming isolated. According to the National Council on Aging, about 40% of seniors think transportation in their area is inadequate.
Sometimes these kinds of problems can be solved with little more than providing a loved one with information about local transportation programs. The Area Agencies on Aging and the National Council on Aging provide a wealth of resources that can help seniors increase their social connectivity: from financial support to transportation services.
But different kinds of loneliness call for different solutions. Keeping engaged in productive activities with other members of the community can provide a sense of purpose. Volunteering can improve a person’s mood, cognitive function, and even make you live longer. Even without social contact, that kind of engagement is often useful for alleviating collective or emotional loneliness.
Above all, take the time to listen to your loved one before intervening. It’s always possible they simply enjoy spending time alone. However your loved ones choose to proceed, you’ll have to respect that this is their decision to make.