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Recognizing the Signs of Isolation

Symptoms of loneliness include stress, anxiety, low mood or sadness, and depression. Learn how to identify and resolve signs of loneliness in your loved one.

Grabbing coffee with a neighbor, joining a book club, or simply spending time with family and friends are not only fun, mood-boosting activities, these simple acts can have a positive impact on health and well-being – and they may just help people live longer.

Unfortunately, loneliness is becoming an epidemic.

The impact of isolation and loneliness is a growing concern. Research suggests Americans are lonelier than ever before and seniors experience loneliness at a higher rate than any other age group. According to the most recent National Poll on Healthy Aging, approximately one in three seniors are lonely.

Living alone, being widowed, shrinking social networks, mobility limitations or chronic illness can all increase the risk of loneliness and social isolation in seniors. But there are other, less obvious risk factors, too. What are they and how do you recognize them?

Five Common Symptoms of Loneliness and Social Isolation

Here are five common signs your loved one could benefit from a helping hand and more consistent activity and companionship.

  • Withdrawal from Social Activities – While it’s not uncommon to step back from some social activities as we age, watch for a pattern of withdrawal that seems excessive. Is someone you care for regularly avoiding social gatherings, clubs, or community events they once enjoyed?
  • Changes in Behavior – Look for changes in behavior like impatience, increased irritability, mood swings, or a general sense of sadness or depression.
  • Decline in Physical Health – Seniors who are lonely often experience changes in appetite or eating habits, as well as experience unexplained sleep disturbances. Chronic loneliness can also lead to higher stress levels which may manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches, digestive issues, a weakened immune system, and other physical issues that don’t seem to have an obvious cause.
  • Loss of Interest – Has your loved one lost motivation or enthusiasm for things they once found fulfilling? It’s normal to reduce activity levels with age. But a total loss of interest in hobbies, activities or passions that were previously enjoyed isn’t normal and can be a sign of loneliness.
  • Neglecting Personal Care – Seniors experiencing loneliness may neglect their personal care and hygiene. Have you noticed poor grooming habits, unexplained weight loss, failure to take medications as prescribed or an unkempt house? These are signs it may be time to offer support.

Approach the topic of loneliness with empathy as your loved one may feel ashamed or embarrassed to admit feelings of isolation. Offering support, companionship, reassurance, and opportunities for social connection can go a long way in addressing their loneliness and improving overall wellbeing.

Health Risks Associated with Senior Loneliness

Loneliness stings at any age, but in older people, it can have serious health consequences. A growing body of evidence, including a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical activity. Other health risks associated with senior loneliness and social isolation include:

Preventing and Mitigating Senior Adult Loneliness

What can you do if an older person you care for is experiencing loneliness? Senior living communities are a terrific way to mitigate social isolation. Most communities offer robust daily social calendars so there is always something to do – and people to enjoy activities with.

There are other ways to help seniors combat loneliness, enhance their social connections, and improve their overall quality of life. Among them:

  • Encourage Social Activities – Join clubs, hobby groups or senior centers.
  • Foster Intergenerational Connections – Interactions between generations can provide companionship and a sense of purpose.
  • Promote Physical Activity – Walking groups, yoga or tai chi classes promote social interaction – and good health.
  • Volunteer – Volunteering can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment while fostering social connections.
  • Visit. Visit. Visit. – Regular visits from family members, friends or volunteers provide companionship and emotional support.
  • Provide Transportation – Lack of transportation is often a barrier to social engagement.
  • Explore Pet Adoption – Studies that there are physical and mental health benefits to caring for a pet. Encourage your loved one to consider adopting a pet. Pets make homes feel less empty.

Resources for Lonely Seniors and Their Families

Fortunately there are resources that can help reduce loneliness and enhance social connections.

  • Local Senior Centers offer programs, activities, social events, fitness classes, educational workshops, and support groups.
  • Area Agencies on Aging provide a range of services including information and assistance, caregiver support and transportation services.
  • Local Libraries often host events and programs such as book clubs, lectures, and discussion groups.
  • Support Groups can provide a safe environment to share their experiences, connect with others, and receive emotional support.
  • Eldercare Locator is a free national service that helps find local resources for seniors such as financial support, caregiving services and transportation.
  • National Institute on Aging provides free materials on loneliness and isolation signs.
  • Senior-Specific Social Media Groups can offer companionship, friendship, and social connections.

The Loneliness Scale

You can also answer a series of questions developed for the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which might help you realize how much isolation is impacting your aging loved one. Here are a few of the questions to ask.

For each statement, have your parent indicate how often they feel the way described by using these numbers: 1 = Never 2 = Rarely 3 = Sometimes 4 = Always

  1. How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?
  2. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?
  3. How often do you feel you can’t tolerate being so alone?
  4. How often do you feel as if no one understands you?
  5. How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?
  6. How often do you feel completely alone?
  7. How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with those around you?
  8. How often do you feel starved for company?
  9. How often do you feel it’s difficult for you to make friends?
  10. How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?

Add up the response to each question. The average loneliness score is 20. A score of 25 or higher reflects a high level of loneliness. A score of 30 or higher reflects a very high level of loneliness.

Where You Live Matters

Where You Live Matters is powered by the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA), a respected voice in the senior housing industry. ASHA primarily focuses on legislative and regulatory advocacy, research, and educational opportunities and networking for senior living executives, so they can better understand the needs of older adults across the country.

Originally Published: October 24, 2018 – Updated On: April 3, 2024


Centers for Disease Control

National Poll on Healthy Aging

National Institute on Aging

Penn Foundation