Did you know that the United Kingdom has a Minister of Loneliness? Tracey Crouch was given that designation by Prime Minister Theresa May in January of 2018. Her goal is look into the causes of what some call a modern epidemic of loneliness and to lead an effort to find solutions.
While loneliness is a condition that can affect people of any age, the elderly face particular challenges as friends and family members pass away and they become less mobile. Yesterday I spoke with one of our clients in her nineties who was quite open about how long she had felt lonely and depressed. She has a home health aide coming a couple times a week, but her children either don’t live close or are busy during the day. She can’t drive any longer, and she recently lost friends who used to pick her up for lunch. Now she rarely gets out of the house.
Knowing there was a senior center just four blocks away, I asked her if she would consider attending. Many seniors I speak with shut that idea down saying they are not “joiners” (or that there are too many old people there!), but this woman is willing to give it a try.
However, her son said he may not have time to drive her and, although one day a week the senior center van could pick her up, our RN is not sure she can make it down the front steps safely. We’re still working on a solution.
Many seniors face this same exact problem every single day. Most never speak up. If you’re concerned that an elderly adult in your life may be lonely, here are some signs and signals you can look for and how to help:
How common is loneliness in older adults?
According to the most recent U.S. census data, “more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined.”
Brigham Young professor of psychology Julianne Holt-Lunstad says, “These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness.”
But what does that mean for older adults? According to one report from the AARP, an estimated one in five adults over age 50—at least 8 million— are affected by isolation.
How can loneliness affect health?
Human beings are social animals and loneliness can have devastating consequences, regardless of age. In fact, some studies suggest that the impact of isolation and loneliness on health and mortality are of the same order of magnitude as such risk factors as high blood pressure, obesity, and smoking.
For seniors, the issue is complicated by the role that failing health can have on one’s ability to maintain relationships: Poor health can lead to a decreased ability to socialize, which can lead to loneliness. Loneliness, in turn, can lead to further health complications.
What are the risk factors for loneliness?
A variety of factors can contribute to an older adult’s ability to engage with the outside world, including:
- Living alone
- Living in a rural or isolated area
- Limited financial resources
- Lack of transportation
- Health challenges (both physical and mental)
- Being a caregiver for someone else
- Poor mobility
- Language barrier
- Experiencing ageism
How can you help your older adult stay connected?
Considering the health implications and known risks of loneliness in older adults, it’s worth taking measures to promote social interaction and healthy relationships for our loved ones. Here are just a few suggestions on how you can help them stay connected:
- Schedule a time each day and reach out with a phone call (and arrange for other family members to do the same!)
- Invite friends or family over for coffee or tea
- Make a list of local (free or cheap) transportation options
- Teach your older adult how to use social media to stay in touch with long-distance friends
- Research senior fitness groups, like walking or tai chi clubs
- Find appropriate volunteer opportunities, such as reading to children at the local library
- Visit the community wellness or senior center
- Address underlying health concerns–for example, a senior that suffers from an issue such as incontinence may be reluctant to leave the house
- Give your senior something to take care of–pet ownership has many known benefits, including companionship
The following resources can provide support for seniors struggling with loneliness or isolation.
- National Council on Aging: Known as a respected national leader dedicated to helping people 60+, the National Council on Aging works with nonprofit organizations, governments and businesses to provide community programs and services to older adults.
- AARP: A nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, the AARP focuses on helping people 50 and older improve the quality of their lives. The AAPR Foundation, in particular, works to assist low-income seniors in getting necessities such as food, housing, and social integration.
- National Institute on Aging: The NIA is an important resource when it comes to information on the health and well-being of older adults. Their program, Go4Life, is designed to help seniors develop an exercise and physical activity routine.