Overcoming Loneliness in Older Adults

This guest post was contributed by Samantha Stein, Online Content Manager for ALTCP.org.

Older adults face a plethora of challenges. Dealing with social security concerns, finding comprehensive long term care coverage, and rearranging their retirement plans to accommodate increasing costs—growing older requires a lot of work and adjustments.

Among these growing concerns are loneliness and social isolation.

Although used interchangeably in everyday conversations, researchers have stressed how these two concepts must be differentiated. On the one hand, social isolation pertains to the objective state where a person does not have enough individuals with whom to interact. On the other hand, loneliness is the subjective experience of distress over not having enough social interactions and relationships.

No man is an island; these two concerns must be addressed. Older adults, whether family or acquaintances, need support in dealing with these issues. Don't brush off loneliness and isolation: both can take a severe toll on anyone, and it could happen right under your nose.

Finding the Root in Order to Address Loneliness and Social Isolation

So many factors come into play when it comes to loneliness and social isolation. Often, it is a result of not just one instance but multiple situations, and it does not happen overnight. For some older individuals, failing health and strength, or a disability or illness, makes getting out more difficult. For others, grieving the deaths of spouses and friends impacts sociability. Some are simply geographically isolated from family members. Financial difficulties and retirement circumstances may contribute too.

While loneliness and social isolation can affect anyone of any age, they appear to weigh more on the shoulders of older age groups.

Caregivers and family members must be proactive in identifying the source as it may lead the way into properly addressing it. Take great care not to brush off mood swings or something similar. These are serious issues that ought to be addressed as early as possible.

Health Risks These Impose on an Individual

Despite the ease that technology brings for connecting with family members and friends, older generations seem to be lonelier than ever. 

The truth: 18% of seniors live alone, while 43% expressed feelings of loneliness on a regular basis. LGBT seniors are also twice as likely to live alone, and they are less likely to have children. Many of them are also estranged from biological family members because of stigma and discrimination.

Research from Dr. John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago revealed loneliness is linked to poor cognitive performance, and it contributes the risk of dementia. Additionally, 1 in 7 individuals with Alzheimer’s lives alone—despite the dangers the disease imposes.

The mortality rate is higher for those experiencing social isolation and loneliness. Older adults are also more vulnerable to alcoholism, depression, and malnutrition. In terms of causing an early death, researchers have even compared the lack of social connections to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. One possible explanation? When individuals live alone and symptoms develop, there are fewer people to identify the need for medical attention.  

Overcoming Loneliness and Social Isolation

To address these issues, start with the individual and his or her specific concerns. Pay attention to older relatives to see if they display any of these signs:

Verbal Clues: At times, older individuals do communicate their loneliness. Some are just not as direct as others. If relatives and loved ones read between the lines, they will see these individuals are trying to say they are lonely.

Changes in Behavior: While withdrawal from social interactions may be an obvious sign, some older individuals become more talkative. They compensate for the loneliness by being more engaging.

Seeking Companionship in Questionable Individuals: Because of their loneliness and longing for interaction, these older adults are often the target of scammers. Pay attention to the people with whom they choose to spend their time.

So what can be done to address loneliness and social isolation?

As simple as it sounds, some older adults really just need a person to listen. So many family members and caregivers put all their efforts into addressing the physical conditions they forget emotions and feelings. These are just as important. Engaging in activities they enjoy and showing genuine interest in what they have to say can go a long way.

The main roadblock people often face now is busy-ness. But spending a few hours with an older adult at risk will prevent seclusion and can help eradicate the problem. Helping them feel loved and accepted can make a huge difference: no one should ever underestimate the benefits of feeling valued and appreciated.