Loneliness in the senior population is very common all over the world. In the US, research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine shows that one out of every three adults who are 45 and older feel lonely. It is also said that one out of every four adults who are 65 and older are socially isolated. This begs the question what exactly is loneliness and social isolation and why are they so prevalent?
A simple explanation for loneliness is the feeling of being alone. This can happen even if one has social contacts around them. Isolation on the other hand is a lack of social connections and interactions. One can be socially isolated and not feel lonely but more often than not, it will lead to loneliness. One can also be lonely despite being surrounded by people.
The causes of loneliness and social isolation include:
When seniors lose a loved one, especially in the form of a spouse or close friend, it can hit them particularly hard. This is because seniors by nature, do not have many close friends. Due to age, health and changing societal dynamics, it is also not easy for them to be involved in many activities that would lead to the formation and sustenance of new friendships. As a result, they tend to be lonely and isolated if they lose a loved one or someone close to them.
Physical distance from loved ones
As a normal part of growth, adults leave home to fend for themselves, and this usually starts when children go to college. It is not uncommon to find elderly adults who live alone as a result of loved ones being far away, for example in a different country or in a different city or state. Combined with death and/or divorce, this will mean fewer interactions with loved ones, and this can compound the situation for a senior.
Immigrants also fall in this category because they are yet to acclimatize to a new culture, weather, way of life and are yet to create meaningful relationships.
Technology, although good and is being used in a lot of positive ways, can aid loneliness and social isolation. This is because technology changes frequently and many seniors may not keep up. In addition, not all of it is user friendly for seniors. It can create a sense of being left out and behind by the rest of the world, especially when they see everyone immersing themselves in these technologies and trends which they cannot keep up with or fully understand or be interested in.
Ironically, technology is the one thing which can help them bridge the distance with loved ones, and create friends in order to help avoid loneliness and isolation.
As many people age, they tend to become sickly. Seniors who suffer from chronic illness or those who have difficulties hearing, seeing, or functioning properly by themselves can be particularly affected. They feel like a burden, and they can shut down. It is even worse for those who do not have a lot of family close by or checking up on them regularly.
Dangers of loneliness and isolation
It is important to point out that loneliness and isolation can occur at any age. However, the prevalence in seniors is higher than in any other group. And the dangers of this can be quite high. From statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the health risks of loneliness and social isolation in seniors can include elevated risk of conditions and ailments such as dementia, early death, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, and suicide. In addition, when senior citizens who are lonely or socially isolated get admitted to a hospital, they tend to have longer hospital stays. Then when they do get discharged, they are usually readmitted quicker than those who do not suffer from isolation or loneliness.
It is also worth noting that senior citizens tend to be very proud and many of them may not want to speak about such feelings. It is therefore important for loved ones and care givers to look out for signs of loneliness in the seniors close to them. These signs include but are not limited to:
When the elderly feel lonely, they tend to withdraw from normal social interactions. It becomes much harder for them to maintain contact or interactions with loved ones. They do not even look forward to it.
Lack of interest in activities
They also lose interest in activities that they once derived pleasure in doing. And this is different from when they stop activities for health reasons. For example, someone who loves playing and watching basketball for leisure might stop playing due to health reasons and aging, but they can have time to watch. Someone who is lonely and isolated might lose interest even in watching the game.
Changes in eating habits
In most cases, loneliness, and isolation result in the loss of appetite, poor feeding patterns or changes in once consistent eating habits. This is one of the easily noticeable signs.
Difficulty concentrating and communicating
Due to the effects of loneliness and isolation, the health of the person can be greatly affected by dementia or anxiety and depression, so their mental health can take a beating. This can result in them finding it difficult to concentrate or even communicate.
How to prevent loneliness and isolation
The ways of preventing loneliness and isolation depend on the major source of it. And often, the remedy for this is different depending on the age group in question. However, for seniors, this can be through:
Volunteering, especially by those who are able to do it, is a good way to combat loneliness as well as isolation. Helping others is always a good way to feel good about ones’ self. For those who have family far away or have lost a loved one, this is a good way to keep active and meet other people, which can lead to more meaningful relationships.
Learning to use technology and social media
For those who have family members living far away and would like to stay in touch with them, technology can break down physical barriers and help loved ones keep in touch. This can be through social media, video calling and many more options. All that a senior citizen needs to do is to have a positive attitude towards technology and give it a try due to the numerous inherent benefits. There are ways to adapt some of these technologies for their use.
Through social media and technology in general, one can make friends with people in different parts of the world and also learn about other cultures, travel virtually and even learn or develop new hobbies.
For seniors who are travel enthusiasts, there is travel for seniors. This can also help them meet new people who are interested in the same things and help in creating new and meaningful relationships. However, one needs to ensure that they take travel specifically tailored for seniors to avoid health related issues that might come with travel and its associated activities.
Loneliness and isolation can occur at any age. However, seniors are more at risk. It is therefore important that as we age, we realize that this might occur and as such, take measures to address this. In addition, loved ones should also be on the lookout for any signs of loneliness and isolation from their loved ones and take immediate steps to address the causes.
Humans are social beings, and with positive social interaction, can thrive socially and health-wise. Seniors can live long happy lives if they get the right amount of social interaction it can help them avoid the feelings of loneliness and isolation.