With modern technological advances, it is easier to stay in touch than ever before. Smart phones, social media apps, and the internet have made it possible to contact anyone, anywhere, at any time. Despite these advances, research suggests that Americans, as a society, are lonelier than ever before – and seniors experience that loneliness at a higher level than any other age group.
What Are the Consequences of Loneliness?
To some degree, loneliness is a choice. You have the ability to choose whether you keep to yourself or make an effort to stay in touch with friends and family. There are certain factors, however, that make it more difficult to stay connected. As you get older, your social circle starts to shrink. Elderly friends pass away, family members start families of their own, and people move away. Even if you have friends and family in the area, issues of mobility, illness, and transportation can make it difficult to get out of the house to see the people you care about.
Age also comes with certain physical consequences, such as decreased mobility, vision impairments, and nagging health issues that may make it difficult to leave the home. Embarrassment can also be a factor. Older adults who suffer from incontinence, vision or hearing loss, and those who need assistive devices to get around may feel self-conscious or anxious enough to avoid social situations. As a result, they become increasingly isolated.
Loneliness may not seem like a significant problem, but the truth is that it can affect both a person’s quality of life and their physical health. A study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) found that individuals 60 years or older who self-reported feelings of loneliness had a 45% increased risk of death. They also had a 59% higher risk of mental and physical decline, which manifests most notably in their ability to perform daily living activities.
Scientists believe that loneliness has a similar physiological effect on the body as chronic stress. Loneliness increases production of stress hormones, like cortisol, which trigger inflammation and impair immunity while also contributing to mental illness and chronic health problems, such as diabetes and heart disease. According to the results of a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry, loneliness may also be correlated with the development of biomarkers in the brain that have been associated with early Alzheimer’s disease.
Tips for Overcoming Loneliness in Seniors
The consequences of loneliness can have serious implications for both mental and physical health in seniors. If you are concerned about your aging parents or another loved one, step up and do something about it. There are plenty of simple things that can be done to combat senior loneliness – all it takes is for one person to set the wheels in motion.
Below are eight tips to help a loved one overcome loneliness:
- Take time to listen. Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a person is listen. Simply having you there to listen can help your loved one feel less alone. Actively engage your loved one in conversation, asking questions and encouraging them to express themselves. It may not come easily at first, but if your willingness to learn will go a long way.
- Develop a plan. In addition to listening, take the time to learn about your loved one’s interests and develop a plan to incorporate them into everyday life. If your loved one enjoys music, try taking them to a show or encourage them to join a community choir. If that is too much, simply taking an hour out of your day to share an activity with your loved one can make a significant impact.
- Start a new hobby. Learning something new is the best way to keep your brain young. Encourage your loved one to take up a new hobby as a means of staying active and meeting new people. Suggest that they join a book club, start a knitting circle, or head to the local community center to participate in weekly activities.
- Bridge the gap. For aging parents and others struggling with loneliness, finding someone to connect with may not be as difficult as imagined. One of the best opportunities is to connect your loved one with younger relatives. Grandchildren, nieces, and nephews can learn a lot by spending time with older family members and, for your loved one, it may help them feel younger and more included in family activities.
- Take a class or seminar. If your loved one is still mobile, encourage them to take up a class or seminar to get out of the house and meet new people. Check with your local community center or community college because many of these places offer free classes for seniors. Also, try asking around at your local library to see what events are coming up.
- Teach someone something. If taking a class is too much of a commitment for your loved one, give them the opportunity to teach you something instead. Take what you have learned by listening to your loved one and ask them to teach you something. Even if all they are able to offer is wisdom and helpful advice, it will help bring meaning to their life and restore some of the child-parent dynamic that can sometimes be lost when children start caring for their aging parents.
- Give back. Volunteering provides a variety of benefits for lonely seniors, both physical and mental. In addition to promoting physical activity, volunteering keeps the brain active. According to the National Institute on Aging, participating in meaningful activities can lower the risk of dementia and physical health problems in seniors. Plus, it will get your loved one out of the house and into a community.
- Adopt a pet. While an animal might not be an equal substitute for human companionship, studies show that caring for a pet can provide both physical and mental benefits. In fact, having a pet can trigger chemical reactions in the brain that reduce cortisol levels and increase serotonin production. Plus, having a pet around will make the home feel less empty.
If you are concerned about your loved one’s physical and mental wellbeing and you worry that the tips above are not enough, it might be time to consider senior living. Senior living communities are not just for elderly patients who need help taking care of themselves – they also offer social opportunities that might not be possible otherwise. When talking about senior living with your aging parents or loved ones, it is important to focus on the benefits and make sure they feel it is their decision. The last thing you want is for your loved one feel like you are trying to get rid of them.
Aging is a fact of life and something no one can escape. Still, there will always be opportunities to meet new people and to stay connected with family and friends – it is just a matter of making it happen.