The Health Risks of Loneliness and Senior Neglect

3 Major Risks, and 4 Ways to Help

senior loneliness

Here's an all-too-common scenario: A senior in your life is becoming increasingly isolated, and you worry that he or she is lonely, but you're not sure what to do. It's not the easiest subject to bring up, especially when family members or loved ones are proud and don't want to admit they're feeling alone.

But with roughly one of out of eight Americans now over 65 (nearly 47 million people as of 2015), loneliness and isolation are becoming hot-button issues for all of us. Consider these facts, from the Administration on Aging:

  • Twenty-eight percent of Americans over 65 live alone; for women, it's a startling 46 percent.
  • People over 65 have an average life expectancy of almost 20 more years.
  • While 72 percent of men over 65 are married, only 45 percent of women are married; 37 percent are widows.
  • Almost half of women over 75 live alone.

"We know that loneliness and isolation are prevalent among America’s older population and can have increasingly detrimental effects on mental, emotional and physical health," says Dr. Romilla Batra, chief medical officer at SCAN Health Plan, an HMO plan serving Medicare patients.

Sometimes an older adult lacks a network of family and friends; other times seniors may withdraw into isolation as a result of health conditions, depression or mental illness. Physical limitations such as a fear of falling can keep a senior isolated in her home, as can fatigue, chronic pain, or shame over memory problems. Many seniors become nervous about driving long distances or can no longer drive after dark, and they may fear or resist using public transportation options.

As a result of these factors, older adults may be alone for days or even weeks; a recent survey in England found that one-fifth of adults over 75 reported having contact with another person less than once a week, and one in ten said they might see a visitor less than once a month. In a 2009 Pew Research report, one out of every six Americans over 65 described their lives as lonely.

Sadly, loneliness can accompany more serious forms of neglect and abandonment -- both of which are considered elder abuse as defined by the National Center on Elder Abuse (NCEA). The term neglect refers to any situation in which a senior doesn't have the food, healthcare, shelter, and protection he or she needs, including help with the tasks necessary for daily living. Abandonment occurs when those who've assumed responsibility for care or custody of a senior stop providing it, whether intentionally or through oversight or lack of means.

Whether or not a senior in your life is lonely or socially isolated, this epidemic of loneliness is a society-wide problem that affects all of us. When you're frustrated with the elderly woman ahead of you holding up the checkout line while she chats with the checker, ask yourself: What if that's the only conversation she'll have all day, or even all week? As a society, we should be treating senior loneliness as the public health crisis it is, experts say, because of the profound effects loneliness can have on physical and mental health.

And if you're concerned about an older family member or friend who seems lonely, your worry is well-founded. Isolation and loneliness are prime signs that an older adult is without the support and tools needed to live a healthy, independent life and may be in danger of spiraling into decline.

Fact #1: Loneliness Harms Your Brain

Interesting new research is showing that loneliness may speed up the onset of dementia. In a recent Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, researchers followed more than 2,000 healthy, dementia-free seniors for three years and found that 13 percent who reported feeling lonely developed dementia by the end of that time, as compared with 6 percent with strong social support.

Fact #2: Loneliness Harms Your Heart

In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) compiled the results of numerous studies and concluded that there's a proven link between loneliness and fatal heart disease. In one study cited, researchers at Harvard followed 44,000 people with heart disease and found that 8 percent of patients who lived alone died after four years, compared with 5.7 of those who lived with a spouse or others.

In research on the outcomes of coronary disease, Swedish researchers discovered that coronary bypass patients who checked the box "I feel lonely" had a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than other patients 30 days post-surgery, and that even five years later they were twice as likely to have died.

Fact #3: Loneliness Kills

Can this really be true? Sadly, yes. When researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, followed a group of seniors for six years, they found that by the end of the study period, almost a quarter (22.8 percent) of all the older adults who had reported feeling isolated or lonely had died. And another 25 percent had suffered significant health declines. By comparison, among the seniors who said they were happy or satisfied with their social lives, only 12.5 percent had declining health, and only 14.2 percent had died.

And before you dismiss this type of isolation as common only among the very old, consider that the average age of the adults in the study was just 71. In other words, many baby boomers are reaching retirement age without strong social networks to support them.

Another study, this time from Brigham Young University, analyzed study data for more than 300,000 people and found that loneliness was as strong a marker for early death as alcoholism and heavy (more than 15 cigarettes a day) smoking.

4 Ways to Protect Your Older Loved Ones From Loneliness

What can you do if an older adult in your life is growing isolated or lonely? Here are four simple steps you can take to help your loved one reconnect.

1. Help your loved one become more social-media savvy

As younger folks know all too well, you don't need to leave your house to catch up with friends, follow current events, and find out about events in your area. But it turns out that more seniors are also looking to technology, as well as community events and volunteer opportunites, to help stay connected, according to Dr. Batra.

In fact, a national survey conducted by SCAN in Oct. 2017 revealed that 77 percent of seniors use email to keep in touch with loved ones, and 53 percent use social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

E-mail and news sites are one way to do this, of course, but using a social media site like Facebook makes it even easier for an older adult to feel connected, simply by being able to see what others are posting. Facebook also offers plenty of opportunities to participate in "watercooler" discussions of current goings-on and share recommendations for books, movies, and music. Ask yourself: Don't you feel more motivated to get out and see a movie if your friends are talking about it? The same is true for your parent or loved one.

2. Encourage your loved one not to live alone

It's common for seniors to want to "age in place" in their own homes, and you may hear strong opinions on this topic from your parents and older loved ones. But this may not be such a good idea, experts say; studies show that those who live alone are prone to a host of health issues compared with those who are married or living in a group living situation.

A Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry showed that people who lived alone or who were no longer married were between 70 percent and 80 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who lived with others or were married. And a recent study conducted at University College London found that social isolation -- even more than loneliness -- can lead to early death, even for those as young as 52.

3. Set up transportation options

Ask anyone who works with seniors living on their own: One of the biggest factors behind isolation is lack of transportation. Many older adults no longer drive, or they fear driving at night or on unfamiliar routes. Call your local Area Agency on Aging and get a list of all the transportation resources in your loved one's area. If, despite your encouragement, your loved one resists using group transportation, consider setting up a taxi fund so that taking a taxi doesn't feel like too much of a splurge. Another possibility: Find a taxi driver in your area whom your parent feels comfortable with and set up regular appointments for your loved one's activities.

4. Help your loved one find support groups

When older adults with health problems find support from others with the same condition, it helps with loneliness and depression. They may also get valuable information and motivation to seek help for their health condition. The University of College London researchers noted that the early death rate for socially isolated people may be due to the fact that they don't have anyone to encourage them to get help with health problems or to intervene in a health crisis. If your loved one has physical impairments, an online support group can ease anxiety and inspire him with ideas for ways to help himself. If your loved one is a widower or widow, a bereavement or grief support group offers a chance to share feelings as well as a place to meet others in the same situation.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio

almost 2 years, said...

Good article, but whether it's because historically in this country the elderly were living with family members & that was considered to be enough for them or some other reason, support groups such as suggested don't seem to work. Several (including myself) have tried such groups in this area & they get nowhere, almost total lack of interest. (And admittedly, there's a real lack of interest in all age groups joining things any more--& they don't notice their loneliness & growing social isolation becuz they're busy still working, raising, family, taking care of elderly parents/spouse, etc--but it's the hardest, as all things in life are, for the elderly becuz you just simply spend most of every day alone. And groups that are set up specially to get people together to socialize do not work, probably becuz most people want things to feel as natural and spontaneous as possible not this awkward, being thrown together like kids being dropped off somewhere for a play date. And guess what: these kinds of groups are never going to work becuz humans spent most of our evolution whole families either living together or nearby; then as recently (as human history goes) as shortly after World War II (here in the US anyway), everybody started moving around constantly. And it wasn't the kind of immigration as before WW2 when whole families would move to a new area; nope, it was some guy who had gone to college (& the 1st ever in his family to do so) on the G.I. Bill, picked up his high school sweetheart & married her & moved far away from all family & friends. (And most of the defense contractors, corporations, etc. these guys worked for were moving them as often as every 6 months, so no chance to make lasting friends with the neighbors.) So since there doesn't seem to be any chance of changing all this (unless somebody invents a time machine to go back & never offer education via the GI Bill & therefore make people stay where they are), old people are going to be getting lonelier & lonelier. When I was young a long time ago, I heard more than once, old folks talking about how if you manage at all to make friends once you're grown, they won't be anywhere near as good as friends you make when you're a kid. Turns out they were right; recent brain mapping shows that the part of the brain used in making friends peaks at the age of 8 & then it's downhill after that. Who knew Gram & Gramps knew so much!

over 2 years, said...

This is a really serious problem for those of us who are widowed and are elderly. My husband of 57+ years died 2-1/2 years ago and I feel more lonely, more grief, less able to endure than I did just after he died. I thought I was prepared for living alone. After all, my husband was a career Navy man and I spent 9-10 months at a time alone back then without the serious depression that I feel now. Maybe because I was young, maybe because I had kids to take care of. maybe because I KNEW he was coming home again. I have always been pretty independent and didn't think I would be so helpless/hopeless as now. A big portion, I realize is that I am now 83 years old and not terribly mobile. Unfortunately, I am otherwise in excellent health, and still have at least 95% of my marbles, so am not quite ready to go sit in the corner and drool as is expected of the elderly. My son lives 800 miles away and has offered to give me a room in his house with his wife's blessings. Unfortunately, the IDEA of downsizing my life into a 10x12 or so room leaves me so depressed, I think I would rather die than try to move there, even though I know they worry about me, love me, and really would love to have me live with them. On the other hand, I really cannot afford the cost of an apartment (especially not in California), and although my home here in Oregon is 2700 square feet and in a very desirable neighborhood, I can only sell it if about 1/2 what a SMALL place would cost me in my son's city. I still actually USE most of my house (all but the downstairs bonus room), and cannot imagine how I could put my books, my computers, my desk and filing cabinets, into a small bedroom BEFORE I try to fit my bed, bedroom set, and the walker that I need to use to move around in. (I fell and broke a hip 2 months after my husband died). I don't want to be all alone - am getting really fed up with the clutter that is caused by the fact I can no longer reach UP or DOWN, so must keep everything at torso level. If I sell out and move, what would I do with the 70 years accumulation of "stuff" that I still like, use, and/or need? Where would I store it? How can I share a bathroom with two teenagers when I cannot even get INTO the bathtub? Where in a small bathroom do I store the things that I use every single day - and now have within arm's reach while using the toilet as a seat? On the other hand, even though I am the Hermit type of personality, I am devastated by my lack of contacts with people. My neighbors all work, except for the old lady next door who has as much difficulty moving around as I do and as a result, we can only talk when/if we happen to see one another through a window. Neither of us are ABLE to get to the other's house - and she had a stroke a year or so ago, and has too much trouble speaking to talk on the phone. This town has a senior center, but all they do there is gossip and play bingo. (No wonder all they can do is sit in the corner and drool!!!). When my husband died, I became invisible to all of the groups with which we active. I have had NOT ONE phone call from any of the organizations that either of us participated in before his death and/or my broken hip. Neither have I had one phone call or visit from anyone in the church! That is, except for the Mormon missionaries that makes their rounds in the community. They, at least, made it a point to come by about once a month to see if I needed help with anything. Bless their hearts, they bathed my dog, changed a light bulb, installed a grab bar, pulled weeds out of my front yard, covered my front screen door with plastic to cut down on the wind last winter. Last winter, I dislocated my "good" hip and almost starved to death because I lost the ability to get my walker in and out of my car. Can't balance long enough to lift it into or out of my car. Therefore, I was unable to get to the grocery store for fresh veggies, fruit, milk, bread. Nor was I able to stand long enough to cook anything so made casseroles and then froze them into meal sized portions which I ate until I starting gagging on them! I would probably have given up except for the fact that I have a dog that we rescued from the pound and she NEEDS me. She is the only reason that I did not just give up and find a way to die. My pain with the dislocated hip was so bad I still cannot sleep in my bed more than an hour or so. I have to spend most of my time in my recliner. When I go to the doctor, I have to call them to let them know I am at their door and they come out to my car and take my walker out of the car and bring it around to my driver's door. Then, they put it back into the car for me when I leave. When I get home, I can get out of the car and walk the step or two to my OTHER walker that I have left beside where my car is to be parked when I return. I use it to get to the back door, PULL myself up the two steps into the house and then use the walker I keep inside the house to move around there. I have found that I can empty my dishwasher and my dryer if I sit in my walker to bend over. That way, I am able to use both hands to do whatever I need to do instead of using one of them to hold on as I have to do when I am standing. The county finally decided to give me a home health aide after about 2-1/2 months last winter, and she has been a Godsend!!! She gets me to the grocery store, the post office, the bank, and anywhere else that I need to go where I need to get out of my car. I have had her help 25 hours a month. Now, the county has just informed me I will get her only 10 hours a month. I guess I don't really need to eat, go to the post office for stamps, etc., or maybe I just need to shower once a week???? It is really scarey to be all alone, unable to walk without help, and then to try to shower! It's also awful to have to spend Christmas Day staring at the walls of your house with no gifts to give or receive, no celebration, no songs, no children, no Christmas dinner --- or Thanksgiving dinner, either. Life is empty, with no purpose in living other than to be there to take care of my dog. I find that all the things that I used to want to do, I no longer care about. I have always been a voracious reader, but these days, the only thing I read is what shows up in my e-mail. No TV or radio here in this town unless you have cable and since my husband died, I cancelled that as prohibitively expensive. I tried to get a phone tree started last winter by talking to a couple of people at the church. They were really enthusiastic about the idea - if I would do it - and I was willing until I dislocated my hip. That ended that idea!!! My idea was simply to have people call one person in the AM and one in the PM - and to receive one call in the AM and one in the PM. That would have been 4 contacts daily so that someone would know if we were alive or dead. My greatest fear is that I will die alone and no one will know for a week or more and my poor dog will get locked into the house with no one to let her out, nor to feed/water her. There are NO groups, organizations, etc in this town that are available to seniors, handicapped, etc. We are simply invisible for the most part. I think that had I known that aging is so inconvenient in so many ways, and is such a lonely life as well, I might have lived more dangerously when I was younger in the hopes that I would die younger. As it is, if family history is to be given any credence at all, I probably have 10 to 15 more years of this --- if I can tolerate it. I HATE being so hopeless! I HATE being so helpless! I HATE being so needy!!!

over 2 years, said...

Does having an animal companion alleviate some loneliness? I have heard people say this is true.

over 2 years, said...

I really encourage people to become familiar with computers.Inexpensive reconditioned computers can often be found, and there are classes or perhaps a grandchild could be asked to teach one how to use them. Genealogy is a great pastime and can help people stay involved and find connections. I found my father's Italian family and now e-mail back and forth with a cousin-in-law in Papa's village several times a week. I participate in online news discussion groups. These things can help to ward off loneliness especially if mobility keeps one homebound. Computers truly are a window on the world, and help to keep one engaged with the larger community.

over 2 years, said...

Will u b putting this article on your facebook page? I don't know how to share it from here. It says share this page but I don't see how? thanks

over 2 years, said...

I am responsible for my Mom. Alzheimers and at home with 6 hrs/day of caregivers, but time for something more in terms of care. I am a retired RN. I KNOW AL would be a good choice, but how does one deal with a manipulative, angry, depressed, narcissistic mother who's only response to any solution offered is, " I just want to be with FAMILY. 'EVERYBODY' tells me that FAMILY should care for someone who is 90 years old!" She lives in a town with no family. She has a granddaughter and husband with 6 kids at home a perfect house in terms of space for her AND a variety of family who could help spend time with her....but she won't consider them, because she doesn't like how they keep up their house! I have a husband with Parkinson's already and I am 71 with my own chronic pain problems, so going to be hard enough to be there for him as he needs more and more help. Other daughter of mine lives two hours away from her Nana, but has husband, son that she home schools and also has a back injury and lives on narcotics due to chronic pain, so has to pace herself already, just to stay out of a wheel chair. She is 45 yrs old, so not too young herself. And as for 'everybody', there is no 'everybody' that she spends time with. Her caregiver is not giving her this message, and neither are her neighbors as they think she should be in AL. One (only one left alive) friend in her town is moving to AL herself and asked Mom to move with her, so they would know each other while there. OH NO! My mom is never leaving her home and is never living in AL. However, she's not happy home with caregivers for even the 6 hours per day and insists she is perfectly fine and capable alone in her house, BUT the constant calls, already, even with caregivers, about how lonely she is, and when is someone coming to visit or when is the next time she can come to one of our houses, and all the issues of being all alone just keep coming and coming. AND once when confronted about what she thought was a reasonable amount of time for her out of town family to come spend with her, she actually said two weeks out of the month. I just assume she means the other two should be spent visiting with us at our homes, but I didn't ask that!! I am sure that if I offered to divorce my husband and move in with her until she died, she would think that a good choice all around, since she never has liked him anyhow....and her actions around him, have certainly led to him not wanting her in our home with us, although he is polite and nice to her for approx. a 4 day visit once in a while! I have POA and am trustee of the trust, because she cannot handle paying bills or making any decisions other than routine housewife type of them. AND now she's running out of cash so we are where we either have to tap money out of the home to pay for the caregivers, or sell it and have her move. She won't consider ANY decisions. We've been trying since April and lawyer has now given her until end of November to make a decision. Well, to her, this is too much to bear, since her husband just died in August, and 'everyone' says one should not make any major changes for at least a year!! However, my Dad had not lived in the home with her for 2.5 years before he died. He was in a Memory Care facility and she managed to visit him for exactly ONE HOUR per day out of her life....even living in the same town, and having a caregiver to do all the driving. She spends more time daily browsing through the grocery stores! We have tried everything we can think of to get her to decide and she just won't. The past couple weeks, we get hints that she seems to think if she refuses and we're out of money, she'll have to get to come live with one of us, but NOT the family in Washington State! So with a phone conference yesterday, and the caregiver's help there with her, we gave her three choices and told her she had to decide by Monday which of the three it was going to be, so I could get started with the process. Trying 3 pieces of paper with the choices on them, and then write the PROs and CONs of each choice so she could focus on which one had the most PROs in it.....with caregiver trying to keep the conversation and focus going on that. Mom doesn't want to even try that one! I guess, as lawyer says, if she cannot make a decision herself, then we'll decide what I think is best and blame it on him. I would pick an AL in my town about 2 miles from me, where she can have her own apartment even, not just a room and a bath....but will sign no contracts, so if she doesn't like it, the next option would be Wash. State with the family who wants her. Seems the best first and second choice to me. I can see that she would be better around others....but she would have to choose to socialize and not depend on just family for all her entertainment. We just cannot do it, with all in our own lives. Any other thoughts or ideas would certainly be appreciated!!

almost 4 years, said...

Realizing that my fatigue is contributing to my not going out of the house.

over 4 years, said...

The absolute worse thing for senior health is isolation. As the article points out, loneliness and isolation simply exacerbate physical and mental ailments and act as a catalyst to over all decline. If you are feeling isolated, it is imperative that you take action and reach out to others. If you are a caregiver, you have to make sure that your patient of loved one isn't being neglected.

over 4 years, said...

Witch in Winter - I am so sorry that you feel so alone. I am 55 and a widow. I can go for days now with no phone ringing. I have gotten more comfortable with it, but it was really hard at the start. Have you thought about finding out if there is a blind person in your area that you could read the newspaper to each morning? I have a friend that is about your age, and she does this - it gives the spouse time to do household morning chores, while giving to the person without sight. It gives you a 'voice' with someone, and is a fairly easy way to volunteer more hours without a lot of effort.

over 4 years, said...

I think this article was written about me. I spent the Labor Day weekend without talking to anyone other than my friend Jan who called to check in with me. We are both 70 and widows. She has a family that she is in contact with a lot. I have family also, but must call them, they don't call me. Yes I know they are busy...and I volunteer 10 hours a week, and do other things but still.... Thanks for listening.

over 4 years, said...


over 4 years, said...

Hi Sisterhood3 - How I feel for you. 4+ years ago, my siblings and I (mostly I) had to pry Mom and Dad away from the home they had built themselves and lived in for 32 years. They were completely unable to keep up with the upkeep and Mom was well beyond planning/cooking meals - they ate most meals out. Please dont' have any guilt about not being able to stop your mother from purchasing a home. We all have parents with impaired judgement, especially when it comes to their own abilities. My Dad is now 92, and still thinks that he could manage having his old home back - which is outrageous - he can barely stand up without help, and he is tipped so far forward that if he falls, he falls forward. He's very tippy. Get your Mom on the list for the assisted living portion of the senior apartments, and ask them if there is any way she could be moved up on priority. There was a waiting list of 3 people ahead of Mom and Dad for the Assisted Living 2 years ago, and all 3 passed on the apartment that was available, so Mom and Dad got it. Don't tell your Mom it's Assisted Living - the services of Assisted Living are paid by what they end up doing for your Mom - just let her know that the meals come with the apartment, and other seniors are there as well. Take care, and be sure to let us know how you're doing!

over 4 years, said...

Babylettuce2009 - I remember when my mother was housebound caring for my father 24/7. I lived 350 miles away but tried to get there every month to give my mother a reprieve. My mother and father had such a wonderful sociable life before his PD got bad and now no one was there to visit them during their darkest hour. My mother became physically ill with pneumonia caring for him without help and we had to make the decision for my father to go into a nursing home. My dad passed away last year and now my mother is here with us. In a way, she is still housebound especially now with me recovering from surgery. She is questioning her decision to move here now because one needs a car to get around and she can't drive due to her macular degeneration. She finally asked the other day about the senior apts 5 miles from us. She feels she would have more people around her there. I called the complex and they have a waiting list of 2 yrs or more. She would be almost 90 years old by then. She also would have to sell her house or she would be paying for two residences. She realized she should have thought more about her decision to move here in the hopes that all her problems would be remedied. She needs to be here with us - no doubt and we are usually there for her every day. She was hoping to resume her active life as before with friends her age but how many elders her age are able to live on their own and still able to get around fairly well and who drive and stil have their minds? Not too many. I want the best for her, but her visual impairment limits her social life as she can't go on trips with our senior center and she doesn't like going there because she can't read the cards to play bingo or cards. I do wish she had thought about her decision to buy a house again. I do wish she had not been so quick to poo pooh an apartment. I do wish she would have waited a bit longer before she decided to move away from where she and my dad had lived for 7 yrs. she did have some friends there and her bridge club tolerated the fact she had to use a bright light and magnifiers to see the cards. She could walk to the supermarket and bank and drug store. Eventually she would have to be here with us, but we would have had time to think things through. She just wanted out of her misery so bad, she made some impulsive decisions that really didn't work out in the best way possible. For the first time she was making decisions without my dad and she didn't want to take her time and think things through even though my husband and I explained how rural our area was etc. she just wanted out of her present situation. It bothers me every day but she takes responsibility for her decisions. I write on this site because I know how important it is for seniors and elders to make reasonable decisions according to their medical conditions and age. When my mother moved here a year ago - her vision was failing but she could still see enough to get around. In one year's time she only has shadowed vision in one eye. She's blind in the other. She's should really be in asst living but I will never say that to her. Her denial is very strong. As long as she is safe in her home, we will do out best to keep her there. We all have lessons to learn and teach. This is a big lesson for me.

over 4 years, said...

sisterhood3 - Thanks for the hug and prayer. I don't think I would be alive now if it weren't for my prayer warriors. I appreciate your words of encouragement. My Dad is losing words now. He doesn't understand many of the simple commands that I use to help move him from the wheelchair to the bed or toilet. He tries, bless him, but he just isn't processing language for the most part. He's also having more difficulty eating. Maybe how to use a spoon and fork is slipping away? He was up in the night 2 times last night - I think he couldn't find his bed after he left it. I'm still not sure why he got up in the first place, or how he managed to get to the LR without falling. My husband and I still struggle with loneliness, but it helps to take advantage of the 5 day respite that Hospice offers. My next one will be a do-it-yourself fat camp and spa at home. :) Blessings to all.