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Senior Isolation Facts and the Effects of Loneliness

By Jessica Thomas October 29, 2020 Aging

Many seniors feel isolated and lonely. For many, these feelings have only increased since the start of the global Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has ripped through nursing homes and assisted living facilities, impacting people with compromised immune systems. In addition, several facilities have shuttered themselves to visitors. Even for those living at home, the global pandemic has often resulted in fewer visitors, as families worry about potentially transmitting the virus to loved ones. 

Below, we explore the realities of senior isolation and also discuss the impact that it may have on a senior’s physical and mental well-being.  This is all framed with the recognition that up to 75 percent of older Americans in a Sixty and Me survey report at least some degree of loneliness.            

The Reasons for Loneliness: Living Alone

The U.S. Census Bureau suggests that more than ⅓ of America’s senior citizens live alone, and these figures may be even higher in the 2020 census. Some of these seniors live alone because their spouse has died, and others have never married. In decades past, this may not have been as concerning. Family members often lived near one another. 

However, in 2020, families are far more geographically far-flung. As a result, this means children and grandchildren may not visit their senior family members as frequently. This, in turn, exacerbates the feelings of isolation and loneliness. Some of this can be counteracted by technology, such as FaceTime, but, truthfully many seniors feel overwhelmed by social media and other new technologies. 

Changing Neighborhoods

Family moving away is not the only potential source of loneliness and isolation. Long-term friends may also move away for a variety of reasons. For example, some people may choose not to age in place, and they may relocate to other communities. Community and neighborhood demographics may also change dramatically over time. This can be a shock to people who are long-term residents in their own homes. 

Unhappy Relationships

Another source of loneliness that is often glossed over is the fact that seniors may feel trapped in unhappy marriages. In decades past, divorce was not as widely accepted as it is today in certain demographic groups. And because of this, some people have stayed in unhappy marriages often for decades. Other marriages may not have been as unhappy, but people may have grown apart as they aged. Once they are retired, and their children have left the proverbial nest, they may suddenly realize that they have nothing in common and nothing to talk about. This can be quite a shock to the system.

There are likely other sources of loneliness and isolation as well. Therefore, it is essential to remember that this can be either a permanent or transitory feeling. 

The Impact on Physical and Mental Health

No matter the source of loneliness, it is important to remember that isolation and loneliness can have real impacts on a person’s physical and/or mental health. One study actually found that loneliness functions as both a symptom of depression and a predictor of depression. Therefore, if you address loneliness, one should be able to also help mitigate the symptoms of depression. When they’re not addressed, some of the issues discussed below could occur: 

Bad Habits Spike 

When people feel isolated or lonely, they may engage in a variety of activities to attempt to address these feelings. Some activities, such as walking or reading, can be a healthy boost. Unfortunately, often the activities represent bad habits, such as drinking, smoking, or over-eating. Each of these habits can have serious negative consequences on a person’s health, both physically and emotionally. 

Interestingly, one study found that being lonely in older adults did not increase overall alcohol consumption but seemed to be linked with a spike in binge drinking, which can be extremely dangerous. Binge drinking is a health concern in any age demographic. Still, the circumstances may be higher among older adults who have a greater risk of underlying heart disease and/or Type 2 diabetes. 

Loneliness Has Real Physiological Impacts

Research also shows that loneliness has other physiological impacts on affected individuals. One of the most studied facts is that being lonely spikes blood pressure. Increased blood pressure, in turn, can impact other areas of a person’s health, for example, by increasing a person’s risk of heart disease and/or stroke. As research continues into loneliness, isolation, and stress, doctors may find even more real physiological impacts of loneliness.

Isolation Spikes Risk of Elder Abuse 

As the American population ages, there have been increasing reports of elder abuse. In fact, up to 5 million older Americans are abused every year. Elder abuse takes many forms. It can be financial; many older adults are at risk of being victims of scams. It can be neglect, or it can also take physical forms. Perhaps not surprisingly, older Americans who are isolated are more likely to be at risk of being abused. They may also be less likely to report the abuse, mainly if a caregiver perpetrates it. They may be afraid that they will lose one of their few remaining connections if they report it. And this sets up a dangerous situation. 

What Can We Do to Help 

The most important thing that anyone can do is reach out to the seniors who are in their life, remembering to keep in mind appropriate Covid-19 safety protocols. Reaching out can mean a phone call or a text, or a simple email. This connection can make a fundamental difference in people’s lives and dramatically reduce their sense of isolation. You can keep it short, but do it regularly; once a week would be ideal! 

You should also encourage the seniors in your life to find activities that work for their physical and mental, and cognitive well-being. One great activity to encourage is walking. Walking offers myriad benefits. You could also encourage people to look at potential volunteer opportunities, such as the ones found at Americorps. Volunteering can give people a sense of community belonging and boost self-esteem, and benefit neighborhoods and communities.

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The Author

Jessica Thomas is a Public Health Professional, Health & Wellness Writer, and Entrepreneur. She has a B.S. in Health Administration with a focus on Aging Studies and an M.D. in Public Health. Before starting her business, Jessica worked for over 3 years as a Program Coordinator and Performance Improvement Leader in a hospital setting. Her roles focused on various senior initiatives such as fall reduction, preventing delirium, and addressing barriers in the healthcare system. Today, Jessica enjoys learning and educating others on aging in place, how tech solutions can help seniors, and health and wellness topics.

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