Many people are unaware that one of the biggest threats to the health of our nation’s seniors is as common as loneliness. Senior loneliness and social isolation has led to an increased rate of suicides in the elderly and can be a catalyst for Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Senior Loneliness and Social Isolation?
Social isolation is defined as “a state in which the individual lacks a sense of belonging socially, lacks engagement with others, has a minimal number of social contacts and they are deficient in fulfilling and quality relationships”. Unfortunately, aging increases the likelihood of living alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 11 million, over 1 in 4 people aged 65 and older lived alone in 2010. That number is only anticipated to grow as the population ages.
What is the health risk of Senior Social Isolation?
Increased Risk of Dementia:
Seniors who feel lonely are more than 2.5 times more likely to develop dementia. This is according to a 2012 study done by the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. Even when other influential factors were taken into account lonely seniors were still at a 64% greater risk to develop dementia than their social counterparts.
Interestingly this increased risk only applied to seniors who reported “feeling lonely”, not necessarily those who were actually physically alone in their homes. When someone is socially isolated it is not enough to simply be physically there for a person. The senior needs to feel fully emotionally supported in order to stave off the negative cognitive effects that social isolation can have.
Poor Physical Health:
Social interaction is key for health both mental and physical. Positive social support can foster good behaviors at any age. For example, a person with community support is more likely to stay active and make good choices about their health. Without that community support it is difficult for an individual to see the detrimental consequences of their poor health choices. For this reason socially isolated seniors exhibit an increased risk of a myriad of health problems like obesity, increased risk of high blood pressure, increased risk of diabetes, and more.
This increased risk of poor health can lead to a senior becoming less independent. This is reflected by the fact that being social isolated is directly correlated with the need for long term care.
Depression and Suicide:
Social isolation can be a major catalyst for depression especially after the death of a spouse or the news of a life changing chronic illness. Seniors often feel alone and feel that they are unable to talk with anyone about their problems. Because of this social isolation and increased risk of depression the suicide rates for the elderly are incredibly high. Senior citizens account for over 18% of all suicides in the United States.
Social isolation in seniors is more than mere loneliness. It can cause many health problems and can ultimately lead to an early death. Fortunately, the solution to senior isolation is easily remedied. Spending meaningful time with an elderly person can make all the difference in the world and can potentially save their life. Below are some ideas on how to get started.
What can be done to prevent Senior Loneliness?
Make Transportation Available:
Many seniors become socially disconnected after they are no longer able to transport themselves. Without the ability to make social visits of their own accord many seniors settle for remaining in their homes, which can be detrimental. Make seniors aware of all the options they have to get around at their leisure:
Additionally, if you are able, make sure that your aging loved one knows that they can count on you for transportation if needed. When you make yourself available to drive your aging loved one it can make them feel much more confident.
Involve your senior loved one in the community
Many seniors feel that they are too old to learn a new skill or to join a new social group. There are so many social opportunities available for seniors in Pittsburgh. Be it a cultural club, a church with an active community, or a senior center there are so many options to become engaged as a senior.
Make your senior loved one feel needed
Often seniors feel that they have outlived their usefulness. They often have people doting over them and not allowing them to do simple tasks which can make them feel useless. Allow the senior in your life to assume responsibility over something so that they can feel needed. These tasks can be as simple as watering the garden or walking school aged children to the bus stop.
Encourage Hearing & Vision tests
One of the leading causes of senior loneliness is lack of communication which can happen easily if a senior is unable to hear. Seniors can become distanced if they are unable to properly communicate. Often seniors are embarrassed to admit that they have a hearing problem and will not seek help on their own. Take notice of a typically social senior who becomes withdrawn. This could be due to a hearing impairment.
Only by coming together as a community can we begin to halt the impact that social isolation has on our nation’s seniors. Make those in your life feel welcomed and important every chance you get. It can be life changing to give someone the opportunity to open up to you.