Nobody wants to be alone. Unfortunately for many seniors, however, being alone is a reality of life. From people whose spouses have died to those with no family in the immediate area and few friends, isolation is a real issue, and it is one that can have disastrous consequences. Here’s what you need to know about the mental and emotional impacts of prolonged isolation on seniors:
What is Senior Isolation?
Senior isolation isn’t as simple as loneliness. While everyone feels lonely from time to time, seniors often experience a much longer-term and much more chronic version of this unpleasant emotion. This is because seniors often have spouses who are chronically ill or have died and, sometimes, they have little or no family in the area to help ease the emotional burden of those things.
Additionally, seniors generally have decreased mobility and are typically no longer working –both of which contribute to an isolated, sedentary lifestyle that can become a breeding ground for depressive symptoms.
On the same token, however, it’s important to remember that not all seniors who have given up many of their social pursuits are suffering from isolation. There is a definitive difference between people who are happy being alone and seniors who are experiencing legitimate senior isolation.
Isolation by the Numbers
According to the U.S. Census, upwards of 11 million people ages 65 or older were living alone in 2010 and those numbers have only ballooned in the years since then. Often, these seniors do not have family and friends nearby to provide care and company and their spouses have passed away. While living alone doesn’t automatically mean that a person will become isolated, it does present a huge risk for the senior in question.
Here are some recent isolation facts that may shock you:
- Isolation increases a senior’s risk of dying from all causes. According to a study conducted in 2012, adults ages 52 and older had a higher risk of mortality when they lived alone. This is due, in large part, to a decreased social network to provide aide and fewer people to notice a decline in the senior’s condition.
- Loneliness is dangerous for mental and emotional health. As a general rule, seniors who live alone suffer from more physical and emotional conditions than those who live with families or spouses.
- Loneliness is a risk factor for dementia. Seniors who live alone have higher rates of cognitive decline and dementia than those who live with other people. This is due to the fact that seniors who live alone receive less cognitive stimulation and social interaction than their accompanied peers.
- Seniors who live alone are at risk for elder abuse. Isolated seniors experience elder abuse at higher rates than their peers. This is due to the fact that there are fewer people around to notice the signs of elder abuse or to put a stop to the poor treatment.
- Isolation rates are higher for LGBT seniors. LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) seniors are much more likely to suffer from isolation than their heterosexual peers. This is because these people are less likely to have children and may be estranged from their families-of-origin.
- Isolation can lead to chronic illness. Seniors who live alone suffer from things like depression, chronic lung disorders, and mobility issues at much higher rates than their peers.
- Isolated seniors believe life will only get worse. Pessimism is rampant in seniors who live alone. According to one study conducted by the National Council on Aging, seniors who lived alone were much more likely than their peers to express concern that their quality of life would only decline within the next five years. This negative outlook has a poor impact on the quality of mental and emotional health across the board.
When Living Alone Gets Dangerous
AARP reports that upwards of 90% of seniors feel strongly about living in their own homes for as long as possible. While this is an understandable desire for seniors around the country, upwards of 5 million seniors in the country right now need daily assistance with day-to-day activities, such as cooking, bathing, eating, taking medications and getting dressed. While some seniors are lucky enough to have a friend or family caregiver or a third-party in-home care aide to provide them with these services, many are not and these are the seniors who are particularly at risk.
While there are many seniors who can still live alone safely, the following risk factors mean that it is no longer wise for a senior to remain uncared for:
- Difficulty with medication management. If a senior can’t remember to take medication or routinely forgets that he or she has taken medication and takes more, that person is at severe risk of overdose and unintended consequences and side effects.
- Forgetfulness. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, roughly 25% of seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia live alone. This places the senior at huge risk as memory loss of any type enhances the likelihood of missed appointments and preventable accidents, like fires caused by stoves left on.
- Difficulty completing the activities of daily life. If a person can no longer cook, clean, bathe, or eat without assistance, it’s no longer suitable for that person to live alone.
- Poor nutrition. People suffering from memory loss often forget to eat. Alternately, they may forget that they have eaten and consume far too much food on a daily basis. These things place seniors at risk for malnutrition or weight gain and should be monitored closely by a third party.
- Difficulty with finances. If a senior is having difficulty managing money to the extent that utilities are being shut off or the senior is at risk of being taken advantage of financially, it’s time for that person to live with assistance.
Reducing The Impacts of Senior Isolation
For people with a family member that may be experiencing senior isolation, there are many things that can be done to reduce the impacts. Follow these steps to get started:
Understand the issue
The first step to decreasing senior isolation is to understand it. Is the person physically isolated from others because he or she lives in a remote area or is the person virtually surrounded by opportunities for social gain but simply unwilling to engage in any of them?
By understanding the root cause of the isolation, you can provide better solutions. For example, if a person is physically isolated due to their living situation, it may be wise for them to move to a more populated area or to move in with family members. If a person simply doesn’t want to participate, the key may be finding an activity he or she loves.
Consider alternative solutions
One thing that is often incredibly helpful for seniors who are still able-bodied and lucid is a support pet. Pet therapy has been shown to reduce blood pressure and lower anxiety rates and, if it’s an option, the families and friends of isolated seniors may consider the involvement of a well-trained therapy animal.
One of the leading causes of senior isolation is a lack of mobility. Many seniors don’t drive and family and friends are often too busy to act as a chauffeur service. Fortunately, there are dozens of free or low-cost senior transport services available to help seniors regain mobility. These things can go a long way toward decreasing the dangers of senior isolation.
Look for volunteer opportunities
Volunteering is a fantastic way for seniors to combat the effects of isolation. By getting involved in a cause that is important to him or her, a senior can meet new people, regain social connections, and become active in a community once more.
Even if it’s impossible for family and friends to be near a senior at all times, technology can help reduce isolation. Studies have shown that seniors who have regular phone or Skype contact with friends and family are generally healthier and happier than their peers. In light of this, don’t be afraid to dial up grandma or grandpa for a daily phone call. In addition to being fun for both of you, it can actually help improve a senior’s health.
While senior isolation is a dangerous problem that affects millions of people, these five simple tips can help concerned caregivers, friends, and family reduce the symptoms and lessen the effects of loneliness. Additionally, caregivers and family members who know about the causes of senior isolation are better-equipped to respond appropriately.