Loneliness, commonly accepted as part of the human condition, is no stranger to any generation, but it is increasingly familiar in the older population. It’s difficult to pinpoint every cause for loneliness because it is felt so personally. But we do know that some of the less pleasant aspects of growing older can create the perfect storm for loneliness to occur. Physical pain and increasing health concerns, sensory loss (e.g. hearing), loss of independence, grief over the death of a spouse or friends, regrets about one’s past, and fears about the future are all contributing factors.
While not every person who is alone is lonely—and not every person who is lonely is alone!—recognizing those who truly are experiencing loneliness can be difficult, placing them at increased risk for the serious problems loneliness can cause.
Consider these significant health findings:
- Loneliness can lead to major depression.
- Lonely people are at risk for cognitive decline at a faster rate than people who report more satisfying social networks and connections.
- Lonely people are at higher risk for specific health problems. “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” says Douglas Nemecek, MD, chief medical officer for the organization releasing one recent study.
- Loneliness is associated with a higher risk for mortality.
In other words, not only does loneliness have the capacity to greatly diminish one’s quality of life, but it also can make that life shorter. Given the seriousness of the situation, it might be appropriate to consider most older adults at risk rather than assume everyone is fine.
A prescription for loneliness: Build connection
The National Institute on Aging has produced an infographic for loneliness in the older population, encouraging them to stay connected. They might try learning something new, exercising, volunteering, or adopting a pet. The ideas are basic and very positive, but lonely people don’t always have the energy to follow through on such suggestions. So let’s add a word to the “onlookers” (neighbors, friends, faith communities, etc.).
We all share a responsibility to combat loneliness among the elderly, and our efforts will help all parties, including ourselves!
- Do a craft together.
- Bring a jigsaw puzzle.
- Consider taking a small, well-behaved animal with you (but first confirm there are no allergies, and ask whether the person enjoys animals).
- Read an article together.
- Take a walk.
- Share interesting, positive news (rather than talking about the world’s problems).
- Send a card with a newsy note.
Without question, spreading joy to another human has immeasurable, lasting repercussions.
Not every older person can participate in every activity recommended to address loneliness. When we invest time to discover what is possible, and do that, we can significantly improve quality of life for all.
- Holwerda, T.J., et al, “Increased risk of mortality associated with social isolation in older men: only when feeling lonely? Results from the Amsterdam Study of the Elderly.” Original source: Psychological Medicine, 2012 Apr;42(4):843-53. Retrieved from PubMed.gov, US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health.
- DiSalvo, David, “Loneliness is a Mind Killer: Study Shows Link to Rapid Decline in Older Adults.” Forbes, 24 Jul 2015.
- Khullar, Dhruv, “How Social Isolation is Killing Us.” The New York Times, 22 Dec 2016.
- Tate, Nick, “Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking as Health Risk.” WebMD, 4 May 2018.