Despite the fact that we are more interconnected than ever, U.S. rates of loneliness have doubled over the last 50 years. Given the loneliness that is pervasive through all age groups, it’s probably not a surprise that the senior population is especially affected by this epidemic.
Why Are Seniors Lonely?
With age comes changes in life that can contribute to loneliness. For one, as the years go by, the social circle begins to shrink as friends and family members move away or pass on. Mobility also becomes more of an issue, so even the loved ones who remain in close proximity can be difficult to see. In addition, as vision and hearing become worse, communication can become more of a struggle, and overtime, it can feel like it makes more sense to keep to themselves.
Not only that, seniors often feel embarrassed or ashamed of their signs of aging and new medical conditions, which may come with symptoms that leave them feeling self-conscious, such as incontinence. Seniors can also feel isolated from their families, as there is less emphasis on extended family relationships in our current culture, such as grandparent/grandchild. These factors can make it difficult for them to spend time with the people they do have relationships with, leading to a decline in the connection they feel to others.
Why Is Loneliness a Problem?
Loneliness has a real toll on both mental and physical health. One University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study found that the risk of death increased 45 percent for individuals over 60 who reported feeling lonely. The risk of mental and physical decline are also 59 percent higher among those who are isolated when compared those who have social outlets.
It’s believed that loneliness has a similar effect on the body that stress does. It’s likely that loneliness elevates levels of cortisol in the body, which then impairs immune responses, leading to inflammation, mental illness, and other conditions such as diabetes. Loneliness may even have an impact on Alzheimer’s disease, as one study from the Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry found a correlation between loneliness and the development of preclinical brain biomarkers of the disease.
Finally, research from the University of Chicago revealed that loneliness may be contagious. This is because lonely people tend to behave in ways that push people away, which in turn, makes the people who interact with them feel more isolated and lonely themselves. This means that loneliness isn’t something that simply affects one individual — it can spread to the whole family.
How Can We Help Seniors Be Less Lonely
While loneliness is a pervasive problem, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t solutions. Fighting loneliness among the elderly starts with caregivers, and is relatively easy to accomplish. Here are some ways you can help your senior loved one feel more connected:
- Actively listen. The fast pace of our society means that people rarely slow down to truly listen to each other. One of the kindest things you can do for lonely seniors is to actively listen to what they have to say. Ask them questions, encourage them to express themselves, and help them rediscover their interests and passions. Many seniors may no longer be able or interested in their old hobbies, so try finding ways for them to participate in them again, or find new pastimes to enjoy, preferably with others.
- Use that passion to fight seclusion. Once you have identified a passion for your elderly loved one, you have a doorway to helping them connect with others. For example, if you have found that your loved one enjoys singing, start by singing with them. Then, you can encourage them to join a choir.
- Learn from them. One of the most empowering things for seniors is the opportunity to pass along their wisdom. Allow them to teach you something. For example, if your mother is an avid knitter, let her teach you how to knit. Not only is this a great bonding experience, it also lets your senior parent feel empowered, which may have become more difficult once your caregiving relationship began.
- Reach out. You don’t have to spend every day with your senior loved one to make them feel connected to you. Something as simple as a 30-minute phone call or making them a meal once a week can be just the lifeline they need.
- Consider home healthcare. You can’t care for your senior loved one all day every day. That doesn’t mean that you can’t provide them a high level of care, however. At Evergreen Home Healthcare, we are happy to help your elderly loved one combat loneliness with our attentive, compassionate home healthcare workers. If you believe that they may benefit from home healthcare in Fort Collins, contact us.