Four Ways to Lessen Loneliness and Isolation in Older Adults

Sally Abrahms

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!

Related Article: 6 Strategies When Caring for In-Laws

14 Responses to "Four Ways to Lessen Loneliness and Isolation in Older Adults"

  • Gail Kamlay | December 16, 2018 at 2:55 am (Edit)
    Your comment is awaiting moderation.
  • frank proto | November 17, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    I volunteered at CT.HOSPICE for 9 years,but had to give it up because of hearing loss.I am thinking of helping out at a local soup kitchen,or a food bank,My wife passed away 15 years ago,and I felt it a privilidge,an honor,and a blessing to help out,while keeping my mind occupied,and surrounded by friendy people,who I grew to Love.

  • Hannah Sullivan | September 6, 2018 at 1:16 pm

    Hi Ben, we are sorry for your loss. We hope that these tips can help you during this transition period.

  • BENJAMIN N GURULE | September 6, 2018 at 2:42 am

    My wife passed a year ago this coming Oct 10 I was reading on my computer about people learning to live in a lonely life, it is the most awful thing I have ever been through , if there is a way to feel more at ease , please comment , I live out in the country so there is very few neighbors that I know in fact only one that we talk and only once in awhile all of my kids live in other states or in Denver , I live in DURANGO COLO so our get together is far and in between one lives in Farmington New Mex , and that is forty five miles from here , the others live in DENVER or ALBQ NEW MEX SO any comments ?????? also I am in my eighty,s BEN

  • Hannah Sullivan | September 4, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    Hi Holland, thank you for your wonderful advice. We are glad to hear that you have found a place that is helping with your own personal battle with lonliness.

  • Holland Lewis | September 4, 2018 at 4:48 am

    Thanks for caring about this incredibly important subject. As I walk through these later years of life, alongside my wife who is now experiencing “short-term memory loss“ and much confusion… The drain on energy and the introduction of stress is heavy. I would like to add to your excellent list of “helps” and guidance… The idea of finding a church or house of worship that really cares about and is sensitive to elder needs. Assuming the church understands the significance of “community” and meaningful “fellowship”...This could be a place where one can develop meaningful, supportive, and encouraging relationships that becomes like “family”... this arrangement has made a wonderful contribution to my own battle with loneliness .

  • Kathy | August 29, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    I took care of my Mother for the maybe ten years of her life, we lived together for eighteen years, now she’s passed, I’m lost and have medical issues, and islotion. Can’t stay strong , things hit is suddenly and I will cry for ever. What to do!

  • Judy allen | July 20, 2018 at 7:40 pm

    Nice suggestions ,

  • How Social Isolation Impacts Seniors – Home Care Philadelphia | May 10, 2018 at 7:23 am

    […] Senior social isolation can cause even more difficulties and at times, may result in severe health conditions, but families and loved ones of seniors must look after and care for them, check in on them regularly and assist with anything that they face challenges doing. Isolation can be averted by proper care and encouragement to socialize, if they are unable to go outside and travel by themselves, their families must help them and take them for shopping or senior social clubs for fitness, singing, dancing, arts, and crafts, or even musical concerts and anywhere they like prefer to go and have fun in their golden years. […]

  • Extra Mile Staff | April 19, 2018 at 7:31 pm

    Karen, I feel your pain! You are right. Loneliness is endemic everywhere but if you are disabled it is even more of a challenge. I would find out what resources your local Area Agency on Aging or senior center has. Do they offer transportation that can get you to a program? They will steer you to these programs. Do you live in a neighborhood that is part of the Village-to-Village Network? The Village concept is all about connecting neighbors who live alone. There are typically social opportunities and activities designed so you can spend time with neighbors who are also living on their own. The Villages often have vetted service providers, many times for a discounted fee, and someone at the Village who can arrange transportation and help you get involved. In my article, I mention that housing and social media are good ways to stay connected. They are! On the Internet you can connect with others who have similar interests and situations. You can listen to books, play games with others (bridge, for instance), learn a new skills on Youtube, or take an online course. For good reason, loneliness is a hot topic in the press. And that means increasingly there are going to be more opportunities to socially interest, whether disabled or not. Hope this helps.

  • Paul Blazeck | April 19, 2018 at 3:06 am

    Where do I volunteer in the Pittaburgh Pa, area

  • Karen cesanek | April 18, 2018 at 6:40 pm

    What if u are disabled and don’t drive, how do u get involved somehow, someway

  • Janice Frost | April 17, 2018 at 6:16 pm

    This is so true for the widow - It is hard being a third wheel - Not to many people want to be bothered because there is nothing in common with either spouse which ever one goes first - Family to me was not enough so I went to volunteering at the hospital to help others and get connected with other friends like me -Would recommend it for everyone .

  • LaVerne L. Lehman | April 17, 2018 at 3:53 pm

    Great article .... My wife passed away in September 2016 after 40 years of married life. Very often this happens to elderly couples and it leaves the remaining spouse lost and lonely. I believe most happily married couples look forward to 'Growing Old' together but too often one outlives the other. In my case, I made it a point to get involved in activities and set goals doing things each day to make my life interesting. The first thing I did was get involved with in a 'Grief Class' which was very helpful. In my case, I had no interest in cooking or doing House Work, so it was difficult learning how to become a 'Whole Person' again. Consequently I now have many 'New Friends' who share experiences, entertainment and life together. When I feel loneliness setting in I call a friend or get out and do something interesting.

  • Ilene Greenberg | March 11, 2018 at 10:06 pm

    Wish Medicare sent articles like this one to every senior in the country. Love the idea of a special “tablet” for an aging parent—also a social robot! Thanks for this info.

  • Karin Miller | March 9, 2018 at 1:55 pm

    Great, informative article....so timely and significant.

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