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 one of out of eight Americans now over 65 (more than 41 million people as of 2012), 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.
Lack of contact with others is a serious issue among seniors, social services experts say. 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: 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: 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: 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.