No one is a stranger to loneliness. The “pain of being alone,” as philosopher Paul Tillich described it, is part of being human. But prolonged loneliness, the inability to find or maintain social connections, is a struggle for a significant proportion of older adults—and a predictor of poor physical, mental and emotional health, even death.
In a 2010 study of adults 45 and older, AARP research found that 35 percent of the 3,012 survey respondents were lonely. Even as we live in a time of unprecedented interconnectivity, the study noted that the Internet can actually increase a sense of isolation: “For example, 13% of lonely respondents felt they have fewer deep connections now that they keep in touch with people using the Internet, compared to 6% of non-lonely respondents.”
Social Isolation Is a Health Risk
The health impact of social isolation is huge. Researchers have found that those with limited social connections run a higher risk of disrupted sleep, heart disease and stroke, compromised immune systems, inflammation and increased stress hormone levels. In fact, a 2014 scientific literature review of the neurology of loneliness by Cacioppo, Capitanio and Cacioppo noted that “social isolation was as strong a risk factor for morbidity and mortality as smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and high blood pressure.”
While living alone may be an active choice for those who enjoy solitude, many older adults find themselves isolated when they outlive spouses and friends. Mom may not want to move from her home, even as she can no longer maintain it and her neighbors have moved on. Dad may find it too difficult to get out anymore, now that he can no longer drive. Adult children who work full time and are busy raising a family can be caught in the middle, worried about their parents’ well-being but unable to visit more often.
Balance Right to Privacy with Need for Social Connection
Given the risks, how can you balance a respect for your loved one’s right to privacy and the need to be sure she’s safe and well living alone?
- Increase contact. This may seem obvious, but upping the frequency of visits, calls or Internet chats as your loved one ages—especially following a major life event, such as the death of a spouse or loss of independence due to inability to drive—can help to alleviate some loneliness. When you stay in touch with your loved one more often, you’ll also be more alert to changes in his mood, energy or attention that can signal a health issues.
- Encourage relationships with people of all ages. Introduce your loved one to a younger neighbor down the street. Look for community service programs that connect elders with teens. Contact local elder affairs programs that provide friendly visitors. Brainstorm with your loved one about the kinds of people she would welcome, so that she doesn’t risk becoming invisible to those around her.
- Facilitate ties to your loved one’s religious community. If your loved one was once active in his church, synagogue or mosque, but has drifted away due to difficulty getting there, contact his clergy about the situation and request outreach. Most religious communities, when made aware of an isolated elder, will strive to stay in touch through visits and even provide transportation to services and other community events.
- Consider adult day centers. Just the opportunity to get out of the house a few days a week, even for a few hours, can help to dispel loneliness. Your loved one’s local elder services program may offer programs and transportation for a fee.
- Get a consult from an Aging Life Care Professional™. If your loved one is lonely and struggling, but unwilling to accept visitors or attend social events, even with you, it may well be time to get a professional assessment that can guide you about caregiving options. An Aging Life Care Professional can also serve as a mediator or buffer for difficult conversations with your loved one about the future, including a move to independent or assisted living, where socializing is built into the life of the community.
President of Deborah Fins Associates, PC, since 1995, Deborah Liss Fins is a licensed independent clinical social worker and certified Aging Life Care™ manager. Drawing on more than 30 years of professional experience in aging life care management, DFA offers comprehensive assessments and planning, guidance in selecting appropriate care, help identifying resources for financial support and professional consulting. Please contact us to set up a complimentary initial telephone consultation.
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