Chronic loneliness in older adults: How to make a difference
Most of us have felt lonely at some point in our lives. But chronic loneliness impacts more than just your happiness… it can affect your physical and mental health. I think back to my parents as they aged and remember them asking for company on Sundays. It was so difficult to set aside time – life was busy with my two daughters and maintaining the house. How I wish I could go back now and make my parents more of a priority, to spend as much time as I could have, to savor each moment I could with them and make memories.
Many older people are lonely today. But loneliness does not have to be an inevitable part of aging. An AARP study on loneliness calculated that Medicare spends about $134 more each month for every lonely senior than for every socially connected older adult. That is 6.7 billion dollars a year – and with the number of adults over the age of 65 expected to almost double by 2060, that cost will exponentially rise. Although this is a huge amount of money… that is just a small piece of the puzzle. The larger piece that needs to be addressed is helping and creating additional resources for seniors to combat loneliness.
Let’s look deeper at this issue. Why are so many older adults lonely?
- Lack of social connections: Let’s face it, life gets busy. People move from place to place more than we used to, and we become more of a “silo”. I look back to time with my parents and it was not a matter of just stopping over to visit after Mass on Sunday. I had to set aside a whole day to accommodate the drive to see them, spend time with them, and then drive back home.
- Living alone: More older adults live alone today than ever before. Statistically, by age 75, about 45 percent of women live alone. I live alone and it is hard to cook for just one, to sit down at the kitchen table to eat, and to motivate myself to get up and go for a walk. I can see how this could possibly affect my long-term mental health.
- Declining health: Does poor health cause people to be lonely, or are lonely people likely to have poor health? Remember the old saying, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Statistics show that lonely people are more likely to become depressed. And depression causes people to isolate and not go out… and this cycle is extremely difficult to overcome.
Solutions for Older Adults Who Feel Lonely
- Increase your social interactions. I know it may sound trite, but this is a really important step. If you live alone, consider moving to a 55+ community. If you want to stay in your home, look for a Senior Center in your community for activities you may enjoy doing, or get together with friends or neighbors to visit or do something fun together.
- Consider volunteering. This is really an amazing opportunity and something I find extremely helpful since living alone. Studies have shown that “just two hours a week of volunteering significantly reduce the symptoms of loneliness in widowed seniors.” Find a cause that you believe in, or an area of passion, and go make a difference. It is also a great way to meet like-minded people.
- Use technology to connect. What a great age we live in today. Last night I Facetimed with my grandson in Texas. We laughed, told stories, and reminisced about when he was younger. It made my day! I know I complain that people are on their technology too often, but when used wisely, it can be an amazing tool to stay connected.
- Exercise and have fun. Exercise is a win, win, win situation. You win because it can improve depression – and win again because it can improve the quality of your life, and then win again because many different types of exercise give you the opportunity to meet other people. Join Silver Sneakers or get out and take a walk.
And finally, I wanted to talk a bit about how people can help an older adult with loneliness. Watching someone you love struggle with loneliness can be difficult, especially if you don’t live close-by. Here are a few ideas that may help:
- Check in with them, but not just to “monitor” them and make sure they are okay. Make it a habit.
- Send cards and letters. I love getting emails from my daughters and grandchildren. A handmade card makes my day – showing me that they took the time to make something special just for me. My refrigerator is full of photos and colored pictures. All of this helps me to stay connected to my family and friends.
- Ask advice: One of the items in the article is to “ask for advice when it’s appropriate to do so.” I miss being able to call my dad and talk about what sound my car is making, and do I need to take it to a mechanic… or asking mom for her recipe for zucchini bread. It is those little things that keep us engaged. My daughters now call me and ask my advice on something – and I have realized how amazing it is to feel needed and honored for the wisdom I have.
These are just a few things you can do to if you or someone you love is feeling lonely. There is more information and ideas in the article Chronic Loneliness in the Elderly: How to Help Yourself or Someone Else at https://www.greatseniorliving.com/articles/chronic-loneliness.