Studies of people 70 years and older show having social interactions with friends may provide a greater effect than interactions with family members. While children and grandchildren help keep Grandma and Grandpa engaged, it is essential that seniors develop relationships outside the family.
Older people more socially engaged also develop fewer memory problems. Reduced involvement with family and friends has been linked to having worsened memory. Good mental capacity was maintained best in those people who were most socially active. Chatting with neighbors and friends today may help keep the brain sharp for years to come.
Loneliness, especially in the elderly, has been shown to impact an individual’s health and wellness in addition to feeling valued or loved. Health risks associated with social isolation have been compared in magnitude to the dangers of smoking cigarettes and obesity. The strength of one’s social support network can contribute to the increase in the quality and length of life. The risk of dying decreased when people had a strong network of friends.
By the time people reach their 80’s, the majority live on their own, mostly because of widowhood. Older people’s social networks often get smaller for other reasons as well – children may have moved away and aging siblings and friends may have died. Living alone, health problems and disability, and major life events such as loss of a spouse have all been identified as risk factors for social isolation and loneliness.
Social isolation and loneliness are not the same health issue and may require different solutions. Social isolation arises in situations where a person does not have enough people to interact with and loneliness is the subjective experience of distress over not having enough social relationships or not enough contact with people. Although the two concepts can be related, a person can be socially isolated and not feel lonely, and someone with a seemingly large social network can still experience loneliness.
Awareness of programs available for older adults, such as active living programs, senior centers, or transportation options to be able to attend programs, may help those who are socially isolated. People who express loneliness, though they appear to have access to social opportunities, may be better served by referral to mental health services.
Relationships with pets can help eliminate the sense of being “alone” or lonely and have proven to have healing effects on individuals of all ages and all stages of illness. Even a relationship with plants can help to feel less alone and caring for them provides a sense of purposeful work and fulfillment.
For homebound seniors, phone calls and regular visits can be a critical part of connecting with others. Being a family caregiver is an enormous responsibility and the caregiver may experience loneliness and isolation, too. Seeking support and even temporary respite care can help ward off caregiver loneliness.
Senior isolation is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Getting the facts can help us prevent loneliness.