Loneliness is a common problem for older adults, and there is a growing body of research that indicates it can be hazardous to your health.
Some 43 percent of older adults self-identified as lonely during a six-year study by the University of California San Francisco. Published in 2012, that research indicated a 59 percent higher risk of decline for people who identified as lonely, with a 45 percent higher chance of death. Subsequent studies have suggested the hazards of loneliness are comparable to more traditionally recognized risk factors, such as smoking or being overweight.
Fortunately, there are some relatively easy steps you can take when facing loneliness later in life.
I recently worked with a woman who expressed that she was feeling lonely. When we started talking about her situation it came up that she loved doing yoga, but had gotten away from it. She was dealing with some mild memory loss, and it was difficult for her to organize or initiate activities on her own.
Working together, we found her a yoga class for older people, arranged transportation, and set up reminders for the class. It was something she was really excited to do. She just needed some support in making it happen.
Finding ways to reconnect with social pursuits is a great way to combat loneliness. Here are some other quick pointers:
Isolation or loneliness? These are two different things, but they can be related.
Isolation is when someone has limited social interaction. It’s about quantity, not quality. Increasing activities and the amount of time spent around people are the best ways to mitigate isolation.
Loneliness is a subjective experience, because it’s when someone feels that they’re not having enough social interaction. There is a gap between the desired level of social engagement and the actual level of engagement. This is often about the quality of the relationships that a person has.
This might seem like a small distinction, but it’s actually important to understand the difference. It is possible to be isolated but not particularly lonely. That said, it is usually a good idea to reduce isolation, because it increases risk for falls and poor health outcomes, especially with older adults.
The right level of interaction will be different for each person. For example, if a person has always been an introvert, that’s probably not going to change. The key is finding something interesting and engaging, even if it is just having a friend or volunteer drop by and visit.
Re-establishing connections can be a very effective way to combat isolation or loneliness. People fall out of touch for many reasons, and understanding why is often an important first step. Building and maintaining meaningful relationships is the best way to combat loneliness, and sometimes that’s as simple as reconnecting with old friends.
The Internet offers many tools that make reconnecting easier. Social media, video chats, online forums for topics of interest—these are all ways that people can connect. Sometimes it just takes a little effort and assistance with the setup.
If the issue is more isolation than loneliness, a person may be content with their social relationships but feel bored or purposeless, or perhaps crave the stimulation of social interactions. Isolation can be addressed by reconnecting with social spaces that previously brought joy. This could be exploring museums, attending concerts or events, or just being out in public spaces.
Rethink transportation Driving is a central component for many people’s lives, and it takes some adjusting when that changes. Sometimes people become isolated when they haven’t found the right replacement for driving. A small thing like setting up an Uber or GoGo Grandparent account or reviewing public transit options can make a big difference.
Be mindful of memory loss Social interaction generally boosts mood, improves cognitive health and slows cognitive decline. But memory loss can sometimes require rethinking social interaction. Dementia-friendly spaces can be helpful here. One example is Memory Cafés, which are social events that are safe and welcoming for people with memory loss. Elder service agencies are often a good starting point for learning about dementia-friendly resources in your community.
Hire a professional? An Aging Life Care Manager (ALCM) can help with several aspects of loneliness and isolation. The initial assessment should check for both, with the ALCM getting a sense of both the current amount of social interaction and if it is meeting the person’s needs. If there is an issue, they should be able to help, through a combination of recognizing barriers to socialization and providing resources.
Isolation and loneliness are common issues that can lead to health problems and impact quality of life. Fortunately we can often avoid that, by creating opportunities for fulfilling interactions that meet our social and emotional needs, and by removing barriers that prevent us from reconnecting to what matters to us.
Carolynn Nagao Marcotte is a dementia certified Aging Life Care Manager for the CLO program at Somerville-Cambridge Elder Services, a non-profit elder services agency dedicated to supporting the independence and well-being of older adults. For more information about CLO, visit the Private Care Management page at eldercare.org or call 617-628-2601 for a free consultation.