Aging, Isolation and the Value of Connectedness
Social circles tend to get smaller as you age. Adult children often live in other cities; being out of the workforce can mean seeing people less often; friends move; loved ones pass away. For some seniors, this adds up to social isolation and loneliness. And that could mean not only a poorer quality of life, but a shorter life, as well. Fortunately, there are things you can do to prevent social isolation for yourself or the senior in your life.
The Consequences of Loneliness
You don’t have to be alone to feel lonely. Loneliness is the perception of being alone and isolated, and having a feeling of disconnectedness. You may know – or be – one of the 42.6 million older adults who experience this every day.
This emotional state has physical consequences that can be devastating, especially in seniors:
• Lonely seniors are much more likely to have trouble walking, bathing, dressing or climbing stairs.
• People with few social connections or who feel lonely are at 29% higher risk of heart disease and 32% higher risk of stroke.
• Loneliness may also be associated with early brain changes in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease, before cognitive impairment is apparent.
• Feeling socially isolated can increase the risk of depression, elevate blood pressure, impact the immune system and diminish brain function.
Lonely seniors may not eat or sleep well, may not exercise and may be less likely to see a doctor or take medication. When these things happen, quality of life can suffer. Major illness might be triggered. And it could even result in premature death.
An Australian study shows that social engagement for seniors is associated with reduced depression, improved cognitive health and longevity. Other studies link an active social life with better cardiovascular outcomes and greater immunity to infectious disease, among other health benefits.
Why is that?
Patricia Churchland, a contemporary philosopher who focuses on philosophy and neuroscience, puts it this way: “We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe.”
When we no longer feel anchored, our sense of self feels threatened. Just like when we feel physically threatened, our bodies respond with stress hormones that can have a cascade of negative effects. When we’re not threatened, our bodies don’t have to send those stress hormones into overdrive.
Social activity keeps you connected. When you belong, you find emotional support – and you know that you matter to others. That goes a long way toward a more positive and healthier life.
1. Face-to-Face Time. Phone calls, emails, even Skype or Face Time are nice, and when friends or family live far away, they can be your only options. But it’s important to have in-person interactions too. In fact, a 2015 study found that the mental health benefits of regular face-to-face social interactions – especially among older adults – reduce the risk of depression.
Things you can try:
• Set up a regular coffee or tea date with a friend.
• Invite someone to have lunch or dinner with you at home.
• Take your dog for a walk in a park where there are people you can chat with.
2. Group Activities. The Australian study mentioned earlier found that for every group involvement that participants lost in the year after retirement, their quality of life went down by 10%. Even if you don’t like big groups, there are ways to be involved in rightsized groups that will make life better:
• Volunteer at a nonprofit, school or civic group.
• Explore options at your local church or synagogue, such as group studies, choirs or service projects.
• Have some fun with a regular bridge or poker night, book club or sewing group.
3. Senior Living Communities. Many residents of senior living communities say that having so many ways to meet people has made their lives incredibly rich. Between events, activities, clubs, dining venues, and having neighbors their same age, they discover new friends that feel like family. Some couples decide to move to a community as part of planning for the future. If anything should happen to one of them, the other will have support to feel less lonely.
Loneliness shouldn’t be brushed aside as a normal part of aging. Acknowledge it, then take the first step toward a better – and possibly longer – life.
- Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+, AARP Research, 2010
- Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death, Arch Intern Med 2012
- Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke, Heart, 2016
- Association of Higher Cortical Amyloid Burden with Loneliness in Cognitively Normal Older Adults, JAMA Psychiatry, November 2016
- Myeloid Differentiation Architecture of Leukocyte Transcriptome Dynamics in Perceived Social Isolation, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, October 2015
- Social Group Memberships in Retirement Are Associated with Reduced Risk of Premature Death, BMJ Open, 2016
- Relationships Matter: The Importance of Friendships Among Residents of Independent Living Communities, Senior Housing & Care Journal, 2015
- Does Mode of Contact with Different Types of Social Relationships Predict Depression in Older Adults? Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, October 2015