Growing older isn’t easy. As you age, your social circle begins to shrink. Friends move away to be closer to their grandchildren. A spouse or close friend dies after an extended illness. Health issues such as hearing loss make conversation a chore, convincing you it just isn’t worth the effort anymore.
As adults get older, aging and loneliness often go hand-in-hand. Older adults often find themselves increasingly isolated from friends and family, spending much of their time on their own and missing the companionship they had from a spouse or circle of friends. In fact, 12 million Americans over the age of 65 live alone — an alarming statistic when you consider that loneliness has been linked to increased mortality, as well as an increase in cognitive decline. Studies have shown that loneliness is a greater health risk to older adults than obesity. Adults facing ongoing loneliness have a 50 percent higher mortality rate than those who don’t.
Aging can be a lonely business. Growing older ushers in a lot of changes, and when most of your social circle is facing these same challenges, it can be downright impossible to look to them for support during this phase of life. For family members watching their loved ones age, it can be difficult to understand how they’re feeling and what can be done to help. In many cases, older adults don’t want to admit how they’re feeling, which can make it even more challenging to understand what’s happening and what they need.
If loneliness is so difficult to identify and correct, then what’s the point?
No one — regardless of their age — should be forced to live with loneliness. Besides having a documented impact on their physical health, loneliness can lead to depression and other mental health issues that are not okay at any age. If you’re the relative of or caregiver for an older adult, it’s important to understand the impact of loneliness on seniors so that you will recognize it and combat it effectively.
Signs That a Senior Is Being Affected
Everyone feels lonely once in a while — that feeling of isolation that comes on a Friday night when you’re home alone or spend an afternoon by yourself isn’t what we’re talking about here. Loneliness in older adults is different because it doesn’t end. Since so many older adults live alone, there isn’t anyone coming home in the evening wanting to chat about their day. There’s no one to play cards with or watch a movie or take to the mall. Their friends aren’t mobile, so they can’t get together for coffee or take a walk. Their family members are busy with children and careers and travels. It can seem like they’ve been left alone and, while often unintentional, it’s true.
In a society that values busyness, it can be challenging to come to a point in your life when you aren’t busy anymore. Besides leaving you with a lot of free time, it means fewer opportunities to socialize and connect with other people. And human beings are wired for connection with other humans, regardless of their age.
It is this busyness that can also lead younger adults — family members and caregivers — to overlook this very real but intangible need that their senior loved ones have. If you have an older adult in your life, it’s critical to take the time to stop and pay attention to them so that you can identify increasing isolation and the possibility that they’re becoming consistently lonely.
How can you identify loneliness and social isolation in older adults?
Some of the causes of loneliness in seniors include:
- Lack of transportation
- Living far from family
- Serving as the primary caregiver for a spouse or other family member
- Financial problems, such as struggling to make ends meet
- Recent loss of a loved one
- Recent or ongoing health problems
- Lack of mobility
Over time, small occurrences of loneliness can snowball into a continuous feeling of being alone. However, this is a very personal experience, and it will look different for different people. Look for signs that they might be lacking the social connections they once had. Ask yourself these questions:
- Does my loved one live alone, or are there other people in the home or nearby with whom they socialize?
- Have they recently experienced the death of a family member or close friend?
- Do they have family — besides myself — who live close by and visit regularly?
- Are they ill or recovering from a recent illness that has left them homebound?
- Does my loved one regularly have opportunities to leave the house and socialize with other adults?
- Is there a physical limitation, such as vision or hearing loss, preventing them from socializing?
Answering yes to any of these questions doesn’t automatically mean your loved one is lonely. However, it does mean that they are at an increased risk for loneliness and its unwanted side effects. If you suspect that your loved one is lacking social interaction and is feeling isolated, it’s essential that you don’t ignore the problem. Instead, choose to have an open and honest conversation with them about how they’re feeling.
Effects on Health
Once an older adult has retired, they may lose contact with their peers. Family members may be too busy or too far away for regular interaction, and their friends are also experiencing health problems or isolation that keep them at home. Social isolation causes extreme loneliness, and it can have a direct and serious impact on their health as well. If it’s ignored, the consequences of loneliness on a person’s physical condition, as well as their mental health, can even be life-threatening.
How does social isolation in older adults impact their health?
1. Compromised Immune System
A joint study between the UCLA School of Medicine, the University of Chicago and the University of California at Davis found that loneliness can prevent your body from fighting illness. When a person experiences social isolation, there is an increase in inflammation and a decrease in the antibodies that their body would use to fight infection. When the body’s ability to fight infection is compromised, then it is more susceptible to illness. In older adults who often already have compromised immune systems, this can become very serious.
2. Increased Blood Pressure
Loneliness can cause an older person’s blood pressure to increase by as many as 30 points, especially if they also aren’t physically active or eating healthy foods. Increased blood pressure puts seniors at a higher risk for stroke, heart failure, coronary artery disease, kidney failure and a host of other serious health problems. While many older adults are already on medication for their blood pressure, leaving a contributing factor — such as loneliness — will impact their levels and their body’s ability to regulate itself.
3. Depression and Anxiety
Social isolation and depression in elderly adults often go together. In some cases, isolation in seniors may lead to depression. In other cases, depression may cause them to become more reclusive and, ultimately, lonely. A senior experiencing isolation and loneliness is at a higher risk of developing depression. Many of the things that can lead to loneliness — retirement, death of a loved one, illness — are also risk factors for developing depression. While depression is a common problem among seniors, it’s not just a part of growing older. It’s a serious condition and should never be ignored.
Depression — and the resulting isolation — can also be a side effect of certain medications or health conditions, so if you suspect either loneliness or depression, it’s important to talk with a doctor.
4. Increased Risk of Dementia
Individuals suffering from loneliness are twice as likely to develop the type of dementia associated with Alzheimer’s as their non-lonely counterparts. While there is still much research going into this link, it’s clear that loneliness can impact your brain’s ability to handle the normal changes associated with aging. Ultimately, this puts it at increased risk of developing dementia. This doesn’t mean that every lonely person will develop Alzheimer’s, but it does mean that ongoing loneliness can potentially compromise the brain’s ability to function as it should.
How to Combat Isolation in Seniors
Loneliness often accompanies life experiences. There’s no way to protect your loved one from the death of a close friend or the onset of an unexpected illness. But, preventing or reducing loneliness in older people is possible with time and careful attention. If they’re mobile, your role is to encourage them to get out of the house and take steps to make friends. Consider going with them to a new activity or introducing them to other seniors you know. If they aren’t mobile, this may require more effort on your part because they’ll need help on outings or opportunities for in-home socialization.
So what can you do to prevent isolation in older adults?
1. Get Them out of the House
This one can be challenging, especially for those who are unable to drive, have impaired mobility or become easily embarrassed by their limitations. Even so, making a point to leave the house and engage in the world around you is a crucial part of combating loneliness. If the doctor is encouraging physical activity, consider helping your loved one join a gym or YMCA that offers a senior program. This will combat loneliness and provide exercise — two for the price of one! If they can’t engage in exercise, encourage the seniors in your life to join a group at church, find a book club at their local library, or another group of people their age who share their interests.
2. Give Them a Purpose
Does your mother love to make wreaths? Arrange for her to share her skills by teaching you and a few friends how to make your own. Does your father enjoy gardening? Help him to find a local gardening club where he can put his skills to use and teach other gardeners all that he’s learned over the years. If your loved one loves to cook — and can do so safely — ask them to bake cookies for your son’s school bake sale or your upcoming office potluck. Just make sure that you encourage them to stay within their limitations. For example, asking a senior adult to read to children if their eyesight is poor isn’t going to be helpful.
3. Stay in Touch
Older adults may often live alone, but there’s no reason to leave them alone. If you live close enough, consider stopping by on your way to work in the morning or after you’ve finished your grocery shopping. If you can’t make it to their house that day, give them a call after dinner and let them talk about their day. Seniors who live alone often crave a listening ear and a simple phone call can make their day. You can also enlist others to help with visits and phone calls. If you have siblings or other family members, ask them to take turns visiting and calling. Engaging family members to stay connected with older adults will go a long way to reminding them they aren’t alone.
4. Consider Outside Help
As adults grow older, they may get to the point where they can’t live alone anymore. They may need help remembering to take their medications, bathing, eating or other daily tasks. When that happens, it’s time to consider your options. Many older adults are reluctant to move, for many reasons, so it may not be time to ask them to sell their home. However, it may be time to consider in-home nursing care or a companion who can help with light housework and meal preparation, as well as provide a listening ear.
About Our Home Care Services
Sometimes your loved one will need the skills of an experienced nurse. Other times, they simply need an in-home companion who can help them do a load of laundry, make a sandwich and walk to the mailbox.
Active Home Care is a Licensed Nurse Registry that provides you with referrals for companion and personal care. The primary goal of our caregivers is to serve as a companion to your elderly loved one, helping to care for both their physical and emotional needs.
Our job is to connect you with the most experienced, compassionate professionals in the business so your loved one will have the high-quality care they deserve. Serving Miami-Dade county, we are committed to helping families navigate the in-home care process. We know this can be an overwhelming time, and you need a company you can trust to help you make wise decisions for your loved one.
Besides offering referrals for in-home care services, we also want to give you peace of mind. We know you love your parents, and we want to treat them as if they were our own. When you contact Active Home Care, we will schedule a free home visit. At this time, we’ll discuss physical needs, dietary restrictions, scheduling and any other concerns you may have. Once we’ve completed our home visit, then we can help to match you with the caregiver who can best care for your loved one. If you choose to, you can meet with several caregivers and determine who will work best.
It may sound like this process takes a while, but it’s quicker than you think! Our caregivers are available immediately, so as soon as you call Active Home Care, we can get the ball rolling and help you line up an experienced, trustworthy professional quickly.
Contact us to learn more about our home care services in Miami-Dade County.