There are so many more “seniors”. How can we be so alone in such a crowd? According to the US Census Bureau 11 million seniors – that is 28% of all those 65 and older - live alone. The fact is that as we get older the likelihood of living alone increases. Some do not have children. Most would rather live in their own homes rather than in communities despite the access to activities, like-minded people, and company. Mobility can play a key role.
We just seem not be as social as we age. Why? Don’t people like us? We don’t like people? Often our friends have moved away to live closer to their children. Some relocate at retirement; others have been taken by death. Sometimes we simply cannot get around like we used to. Our mobility is limited. Perhaps we are afraid of wrecking the car or falling in the snow or on the ice. There are many reasons for isolation.
Feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to serious consequences for senior and their health. Understanding the causes and the risk factors for senior isolation can help us to combat it. Please make and effort to reach out and check on your senior friends, family and neighbors beyond the holiday season.
Senior isolation increases mortality. Both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults ages 52 and older. Research suggests one reason may be that acute symptoms may develop unnoticed without a network of friends to prompt seniors to seek needed medical attention.
Physical and mental health are at risk. We were created to be social. We crave communication, touch, and interaction. When we do not have our social needs met physical and neurological effects can appear. Loneliness has been linked to poor cognitive performance and a decrease in mobility. Think “use it or lose it”. The brain is like any other muscle. Without stimulation, without movement, without some type of exercise seniors will experience decline both mentally and physically.
Social isolation makes senior more vulnerable to abuse. Seniors who do not have social contact are more likely to fall victim to abuse. Isolation increases the likelihood that abuse, and neglect can go undetected and unreported. Seniors can find themselves isolated as abusers seek to minimize the risk of discovery. Maintaining contact with our senior loved ones and friends is the best way to make sure they are safe and have a means of communicating with the outside world.
Transportation woes. One in six seniors living alone in the United States faces physical, cultural, and geographic barriers that can isolate them from their peers and communities. This may be due to the loss of a spouse or lack of access to transportation for groceries, doctor visits, or social interaction. Those living in rural areas often do not have access to public transportation and must depend on family or friends to make the trips necessary to meet their health, wellness, social and even nutritional needs.
Depression and high blood pressure. Loneliness is a major risk factor for depression. Many studies that have shown that feelings of loneliness are associated with depressive symptoms in both middle aged and older adults. Socially isolated seniors are more likely to be pessimistic about their future creating self-fulfilling prophesies that their quality of life will only get worse. Not surprisingly with such worry, there is a direct relationship between loneliness and increases in systolic blood pressure. Studies conducted over a 4-year period have proven that increases were independent of race, ethnicity, gender and other contributing factors. Connections to friends, family and community-based programs are essential in warding off these problems and improving quality of life.
Be on the look-out for the warning signs of elderly depression: irritability, loss of self-regard such as changes in dress or appearance, shutting others out and avoiding social situations, increased pain (depression amplifies physical pain), bereavement, or a recent illness or surgery which may leave them feeling isolated.
The good news is that senior isolation is neither inevitable or irreversible. If we can reduce isolation, chances are we will reduce loneliness. And the other way around.