senior looking sad and lonely senior looking sad and lonely

Overcoming the Epidemic of Senior Loneliness

It’s been said youth-fixated America discards anything old, even its elderly. Too many older adults live in isolation due to factors that cut them off, by choice or circumstance, from family, friends and other social connections. This can leave the elderly to feel unwanted, unneeded, and without purpose—in other words, disposable.

Being disengaged, forgotten or cast aside is symptomatic of an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation among the aged, according to researchers and health care professionals. That’s why, experts say, it’s incumbent on everyone with a senior in their life to try and make them feel a part of something bigger than themselves.

What Is Senior Loneliness?

Loneliness is the state of feeling alone regardless of how many social contacts one has. Isolation is a lack of personal or social connections. Increasing numbers of seniors report feeling alone and/or isolated. That was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and there’s evidence to suggest this sense of dislocation is even greater in this compromised time.

The trend is a concern because studies reveal that loneliness and isolation are often associated with a myriad of physical and emotional illnesses that can diminish an older person’s quality of life. It’s why loneliness and isolation are now widely considered a serious public health risk.

How Loneliness Affects Senior Health

Indeed, loneliness is thought to act on the body the way chronic stress does. A National Institute on Aging (NIA) study found that loneliness raises levels of stress hormones like cortisol, which impairs immune responses and contributes to inflammation. Prolonged loneliness is debilitating and can leave one vulnerable to anxiety and depression, even heart disease and obesity. Another study found a link between feelings of social detachment and the development of brain biomarkers common in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease.

Factors That Contribute to Senior Loneliness and Isolation

Because multigenerational family units are rare these days, most senior Americans don’t live with an adult child or a grandchild. Distance and schedule may make in-person interactions with family infrequent.

Losing a spouse can precipitate some seniors drawing inward into a shell as they navigate grief, which is often accompanied by depression or anxiety.

Many seniors have health conditions such as diabetes or impaired vision or hearing. These conditions impede their ability to get out or make them reluctant to engage with others.

As seniors age, a host of changes occur that can disrupt the connections with others they once may have enjoyed. Retiring from work is a major change most seniors face. It can be hard for some individuals to lose the social organization and relationships that work provided unless they find some new activity or network as a replacement.

For seniors in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond, it’s inevitable that people close to them will die, and it can be hard to experience one’s immediate peer group dwindling in size. Seniors naturally miss family, friends, neighbors and colleagues as they exit their life. This sobering fact can be tough for older adults to accept or cope with, particularly if meaningful interactions with others is infrequent.

7 Ways to for Seniors to Beat Loneliness and Social Isolation

  1. For some elderly people, visiting the doctor’s office, bank or grocery store may be their only regular social outing. For seniors still mobile enough to get around, volunteering for a nonprofit, even a school, can be a satisfying way to feel useful, to give back, and to engage with people of all ages and walks of life.
  2. Places of worship are, for many seniors, anchors of personal, social and spiritual engagement where various needs can be met in the embrace of a congregation or community.
  3. Professional home care aides, such as a Right at Home caregiver, can be key connection points for seniors who don’t get out much or who don’t have many people in their life. The touch and presence of another human being can be important for an otherwise isolated senior.
  4. Senior living residences are not the answer for everyone. But for some, these facilities can foster relationships and activities with peers that are just what the doctor ordered for healthy mind-body-spirit living. They can offer the stability, routine and social circle some seniors miss living on their own.
  5. Similarly, senior community centers can provide nurturing relationships and daily activities for members that promote physical and emotional well-being in a safe, friendly environment.
  6. On a micro and macro level, experts agree Americans can do better in reaching out to the elderly and making them feel valued and relevant. Adult children and grandchildren, as well as schools and community organizations, can engage seniors as wise resources to be tapped. Seniors often have a passion, skill or hobby that they can speak about, perhaps demonstrate, or even teach to younger generations.
  7. There may be affinity programs, clubs or organizations that can reconnect seniors to their passions and pastimes.

Proactive, Rather Than Reactive, Senior Engagement

A withdrawn, listless older person may suddenly open up and be energized just by being asked, “What did you used to love to do?” or “What would you love to do now?” However a senior responds, encourage them by saying, “Tell me more.” Showing interest validates their voice and personal story. After all, everyone wants to know they matter.

Human beings of any age, whether they admit it or not, crave social interaction, attention, purpose and care. Old age doesn’t change this. All any of us are looking for at the end of the day or on the back end of life is being acknowledged and invited to the party. What people do with that acknowledgment and invitation is their business, their choice. But as a nation and society, America will not be doing right by its older population if the opportunity is not offered, say those who study and care for older adults.

How Right at Home Can Help

Right at Home caregivers provide care and companionship to older clients. They can prepare meals, help with light housekeeping, provide transportation, run errands, and help with dressing, grooming and other hygiene care. Find a location near you to schedule a FREE in-home care assessment.

Author Leo Adam Biga

Leo Adam Biga is a veteran freelance journalist and author who writes stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. The Omaha native and University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate is the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Follow his work at https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

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