Feeling lonely and isolated is more than an unpleasant emotional state; it can actually lead to poor health outcomes and premature death. Recent studies suggest that loneliness is more damaging to a person’s mental and physical health than being obese or smoking cigarettes. Physiological changes triggered by loneliness increase the likelihood of depression, dementia, heart disease, immune system problems, and cancer.

The elderly are especially vulnerable to loneliness for a number of reasons. They may suffer losses such as the death of a spouse, partner, or close friends. Even older adults who have caregivers may feel socially isolated, especially if they’re aging at home alone and have limited social contacts. Often, family members who pitch in to help an aging relative are working, have other family responsibilities, and limited time and energy. In addition, age-related health conditions such as poor vision and hearing and limited mobility can hinder meaningful social connections. The unfortunate result, a lack of strong social ties, leads to loneliness and isolation.

Preventing loneliness among the elderly is a challenge. Seniors living in poverty are more likely to suffer from loneliness than people with higher incomes, who may have the means to live in high-quality assisted living or retirement communities that offer activities and opportunities for socializing. And while many older adults prefer to “age in place” in their own homes, their social and emotional needs are just as important as their physical care, and need to be taken into account.

Tips for friends and family members to help aging loved ones avoid isolation include the following:

  • Help seniors stay in touch with friends and family with user-friendly technologies such as Skype and Facetime.
  • Address the physical issues that can present barriers to socializing, such as hearing and vision problems and incontinence. The right treatments for these issues can greatly improve the senior’s quality of life.
  • Encourage participation in hobbies, activities and groups at senior centers, religious services if the person is religious, and volunteer work. Having a sense of purpose is important for emotional health at all ages.
  • Investigate transportation options if the senior can no longer drive. Uber and Lyft are now offering special ride sharing options for seniors, with the goal of making transportation more widely available for seniors around the country.
  • Consider paid or volunteer companion care.

Recent Studies Referenced: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/loneliness-triggers-cellular-changes-can-cause-illness-study-shows