Within a day of each other last January, there were two front-page articles in major newspapers about loneliness and social isolation in older adults. “Loneliness kills,” read one headline, a quote from former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy.
But it was the second story that has turned heads. British Prime Minister Theresa May has just appointed a minister for loneliness. There will also be a government fund to develop strategies and opportunities to tackle the issue.
Why the attention now? Through studies and anecdotally, scientists and clinicians are finding that loneliness and social isolation are much more than just unpleasant … they can be fatal.
Fallout includes a damaged immune system and increased inflammation leading to heart disease, depression, anxiety, dementia — and even an early demise.
Clearly, you can live alone and not be lonely, or live with others and feel desperately alone. You can be 18 or 80. But, it happens more as baby boomers and the elderly lose social connections, opportunities, and people they care about.
Consider these facts:
- A 2015 study from Brigham Young University, tracked 3.5 million people over 35 years and attributed loneliness to a 26-32% rise in early death.
- Loneliness can be as destructive as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being obese.
- Medicare data shows a lack of social contacts (social isolation) among older adults adds an estimated $6.7 billion to government spending yearly.
- In another study, 40% of adults ages 62-91 report that they are occasionally or frequently lonely.
- Loneliness is so pervasive that CareMore, a subsidiary of Anthem, has professionals screen for loneliness during appointments for older adults. (Note: they’ve also appointed a “Chief Togetherness Officer.”)
Why Are Older Adults Lonely and Disconnected?
Not to be grim, but along with life’s many benefits, the longer you live, the more losses you will experience. It’s simple math. It might be the death or illness of a beloved parent, spouse or partner, or dementia.
Sometimes, it’s missing regular interaction with colleagues after retirement or not having a sense of purpose. Or, geography: adult children and grandchildren may live far away (or even be close by but not have much of a relationship); friends may move to be near their families or start over someplace new.
Not having money to go out to restaurants, movies or fun activities that involve other people can limit opportunities, as can mobility issues. There are six million age 65+ who live alone with a disability.
What compounds late life challenges may be not having a partner. More than one third of all adults age 50+ are single–widowed, never married or divorced. And, happening increasingly is “grey divorce,” where long married couples call it quits. With increased longevity and health, some spouses decide they’ve grown apart.
There’s the issue of housing, too. Most Americans want to age in place, but it can be isolating. That charming cottage in the woods you once adored could become a barrier to socializing, finding resources and feeling part of a community.
Ways to Tackle Social Isolation and Loneliness
Now that people are acknowledging their feelings of loneliness, and researchers “get” the fallout of a life lacking in meaningful social connections, there’s a rigorous effort to mitigate the problem.
Here are four ways:
1. Decide what’s keeping Mom or Dad from engaging with others. Perhaps they feel that no one needs them, they don’t know what’s out there to do or how to go about meeting people. Do some “homework” and find out what the resources are in their community. Between their town senior center and their local Area Agency on Aging, you’ll get a good idea of social opportunities, from programs to community events.
Maybe they have no way to get around or aren’t able to. Again, their senior center can help. Is there something you might be able to do, whether it’s take them or get someone else to bring them to events? Lots of older adults have these issues. That’s why there are resources! Of course, if they live in a rural area, options may be more limited.
2. Think about housing options that promote relationships. You could: share your home with one or more people; move to intergenerational or senior cohousing (you have your own place but can share meals and other activities); or become part of a niche community to be with others who share your interests or lifestyle (lifelong learning, LGBT, Jimmy Buffett). If you want to stay in your home, consider joining a “Village” created by older neighbors who want to age in place and offer access to resources (transportation, service providers) and social events.
3. Volunteer or give back to someone or something else such as a cause or organization. It can boost people’s mental health and well- being, be very meaningful and it has great people-meeting potential. Getting involved in an intergenerational program can be especially energizing and self-affirming. If you love dogs, you could visit a local shelter. You might also want to bring your pet to visit nursing home residents. Or, some hospitals welcome volunteers to cuddle ICU newborns.
4. Reach out through technology. That could be FaceTime, Skype, online forums, free classes on the web, Facebook or hobby-specific sites. There are sophisticated tablets and other devices such as GrandPad with multiple functions: through a special portal for family and friends, you can email, video chat with the grandkids, receive reminders, share photos or request a ride. If you can’t physically get to a senior center, some have virtual programs that allow you to participate from your home. If what you want is a companion, consider a social robot like Jibo, the soon to be available ELLIQ or virtual “friend” Gerijoy.
Today, today there is a government minister of loneliness and AARP’s Connect2Affect initiative to end social isolation among older adults. Tomorrow there will be even more ways to stay in touch and feel valued. In the meantime, there’s also conversing with Siri, Alexa or Google Home. Or, adopting a cat to cuddle!
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