“Mom’s been on her own for over a year now. She doesn’t get out much and I don’t think she gets many visitors. She seems lonely and I’m worried about her. What can I do?”
You’re right to be concerned. Loneliness and isolation are a growing problem in our society, especially for the elderly. According to an AARP study, over 42.6 million Americans 45 and older are suffering from chronic loneliness. With marriage rates going down, and the number of people living alone going up, we’re becoming more socially isolated.
It’s important to understand the difference between social isolation and loneliness. A person who is isolated from others has few or no social connections. Loneliness is more subjective. Even if they have lots of friends, those who are lonely have a perception that they’re left out or that their relationships are lacking in some way.
Why are seniors at greater risk?
The majority of seniors live on their own. Losing a spouse, siblings or friends, children moving away, losing the ability to drive – all add up to empty rooms and shrinking social networks.
Medical conditions, especially loss of hearing and difficulty with walking, can make it extremely difficult for older adults to get out of their homes and socialize. Many turn to the television as their main form of company. Without a job or a set daily routine, it takes effort to socialize and make friends.
The health consequences
Isolation and loneliness aren’t just feelings. They’re health risks. Seniors who are isolated or lonely have trouble with daily tasks like bathing or climbing stairs. They suffer more stress and anxiety, have higher rates of depression and are more likely to abuse alcohol or other habit-forming substances.
Several studies examining over 3.4 million individuals from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia found that social isolation, living alone and feelings of loneliness significantly increased the risk of early death. Loneliness is also known to affect heart health and the immune system, and add to the fatality rate of diseases such as cancer.
How does connectedness help?
Being connected to others is a basic human need and is essential to our well-being and survival. Take it away, and we suffer. It’s the reason that prisons use solitary confinement as a punishment, and babies left alone fail to thrive.
You may have noticed that some of your mom’s friends live alone, but don’t seem lonely. They spend time with friends, interact with different groups of people and continue to grow their social circle. By seeking connectedness in their lives, they have created a network of sharers and carers to lean on when they need it.
Living alone isn’t for everyone. More seniors are opting to live with others their age in a shared community. While these senior living communities may provide a range of benefits, including freedom from chores and cooking, access to transportation and the assurance of medical care, the greatest is the daily opportunity to connect with others that might otherwise not exist.
How can you help your mom?
Start by gently nudging her in a more positive direction. Talk to her about the friendships and relationships she’s had in the past, and show her she’s capable of creating new ones. Show her how much she means to you and boost her self-esteem by reminding her of everything she’s accomplished.
Uncover the reasons she’s not seeing friends or feels disconnected from those she has. Go for a walk or share a meal, and listen to what’s on her mind. If you can’t visit in person, arrange a phone or video chat when you won’t be interrupted. Don’t bombard her with questions – practice active listening, where you reflect on what she says. No need to judge or come up with solutions, just listen. You’ll learn more, and she’ll feel affirmed.
Once you know the reasons why, you’ll be in a better position to figure out the what and how. Take her somewhere she wants to go, arrange a visit from a friend she’s been missing or help her register for a group activity she’s excited about. It doesn’t take much to get the ball rolling, and it will chip away at the sense of disconnectedness that’s getting her down.
For your mom to keep feeling good over the long term, she needs to have social support, and it can’t all come from you. Choosing to live alone at home may not be the best choice at this stage in her life, especially if she’s isolated because of poor health or mobility. Take the opportunity to have a conversation about whether this should change.
A New Normal
Seniors like your mom are discovering they don’t have to accept feeling disconnected and alone. Many are opting for a new normal by moving to senior living communities where social connectedness is built in. Whether they choose to interact a little or a lot, they know there are always neighbors just down the hall, a calendar of social activities and staff available whenever help is needed.
Don’t let loneliness or isolation get the better of your mom. Help her find ways to make new social connections, and you’ll make a big difference in her life.