There have been a number of studies in recent years on the effects of loneliness and solitary living on health, longevity, and well-being. While loneliness and isolation can have a negative effect on a person's health at any age, seniors are especially vulnerable. According to Harvard Medical School, prolonged isolation and loneliness can significantly increase the risk for depression and cognitive decline. Researchers are also examining connections between isolation and increased risk for serious health issues such as heart disease and high blood pressure in seniors.
How Loneliness and Isolation Affect Senior Health and Well-being
Human beings are social animals, and strong social bonds and personal relationships are a key factor in health and happiness. Despite the rise of social networks, more and more people are reporting feeling lonely and socially isolated in the United States. One AARP study found that 25 percent of the respondents over age 70 often felt lonely, and one in six men and women over 65 reported feeling isolated in a study conducted by the National Council on Aging.
Some of the negative health effects of loneliness in seniors include:
- A 29% increase in heart disease risk.
- A 32% increase in stroke risk.
- A 20% increase in cognitive decline risk over a 12-year period.
- A 45% increase in mortality rates.
- Increased difficulty performing the daily tasks and activities necessary to maintain independence and autonomy.
Dr. Michael Craig Miller, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, sums up the data and statistics on how social isolation and loneliness hurts senior health: "We do better physically when we're part of a community. We are social animals who have evolved to do best when we're engaged with others."
Although isolation is a growing epidemic in many American communities (regardless of geographical location), there are many ways to ensure that older adults you care about do not fall through the cracks, whether they live in the same city or in a different time zone.
Take Advantage of Technology to Stay Connected
Smartphones and social media are often blamed for the growing breakdown of face-to-face and meaningful human connections, but, when managed appropriately, they can be essential tools in helping friends and families to stay in touch. This is especially true for seniors who live alone or are separated from children and relatives by distance. If you can't see them in person on a regular basis, set up a recurring phone or Skype call, and fill in the gaps with texts or emails, photos of trips and grandchildren so they have something to look forward to and feel connected.
Adopt a Furry Friend
For seniors who are physically and mentally able and willing to care for a pet, owning a dog or cat can have a number of benefits. Pets help people reduce their loneliness, isolation, depression, stress, and anxiety, and also provide a sense of purpose and satisfaction from feeling capable and needed.
Set Up Reliable Transportation
Many seniors, especially in rural and suburban areas with limited public transportation options, may put off or give up on social activities and getting out of the house due to lack of consistent and reliable transportation. Consider setting them up with access to ride-sharing apps such as Lyft and Uber where possible. Many communities and organizations also offer transportation programs for older adults who are homebound or do not have access to transportation. Call your local senior center or council on aging to find out what transportation options are available.
Adult Day Health Programs
Adult day health programs are a great resource for many of the problems affecting seniors and their families. From providing interesting activities and the opportunity to pursue new skills and interests to a built-in community where seniors can engage with their peers and make new friends, these programs can give new life and help them create strong and healthy social connections and relationships.
Schedule a Regular Dinner Date
If you live close enough to visit in person on a regular basis, making a standing date for a fun and interactive activity — such as a regular dinner date (either at home where you can cook together or going out to a restaurant) or taking a class together — can help you bond with a senior close to you while making them feel connected and engaged with the outside world as well. Consider signing up for classes such as dancing, painting, cooking, or learning a new language or musical instrument. These types of activities can be fun and interesting for older adults as well as an investment in their physical, mental and emotional health and well-being.
According to Dr. Miller, "When you're with other people, you turn your focus outward. When you're thinking less about yourself, you're worrying less about yourself. Simply having conversations with people will stimulate your brain and make you feel better."