Preventing Social Isolation in Seniors Who Live Alone:
A Guide for Loved Ones
About 26 percent of people over the age of 65 — that’s roughly 12 million people — live alone, according to the Pew Research Center. As people get older, their spouses, friends and family members start to pass away, increasing the likelihood of social isolation. On top of that, the last few decades have seen an increase in adult children living away from their hometowns, along with more seniors who never had children — which means fewer family members to give company and care to our country’s aging population.
For many seniors, living alone is a wonderful experience without the risk of social isolation, especially for those already engaging in social activities. However, we tend to have fewer and fewer opportunities for socializing as we get older, which means isolation can easily occur without us even realizing that is the path we are on. While you may think seniors deserve a break from the outside world, social isolation comes with many consequences, such as:
- A higher risk of mortality
- Cognitive decline and risk of dementia
- Long-term health issues, like high blood pressure, depression, chronic lung disease, arthritis and impaired mobility
- Deep depression, in cases of bereavement
- Higher risk of engaging in unhealthy behavior
Whatever the cause, the consequences of senior isolation can be alarming and even harmful. Even if some simply think they are isolated — feeling lonely whether or not they are actually alone — the experience can be a painful struggle for many older people. That doesn’t mean there can’t be hope.
As we see more and more people living longer, an increasing amount of research has been dedicated to the risks, causes, and most importantly, the prevention of senior isolation. This guide shows you nine ways you can help make sure your aging loved one isn’t lonely, giving them a golden life in their golden years.
- Senior Centers
- Video Calls and Vacations
- A Sense of Purpose
- Early Intervention
- Living Closer
- Accessible Transportation
- Exercise and Activity
A study from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project found that feelings of loneliness in seniors can damage both physical and mental health. Senior isolation is linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline, which is very frightening to most people, but especially an aging person who lives alone. One way to prevent this decline in health is to connect seniors with social resources, such as senior centers and meal delivery services. Being social is a hallmark of the human species; it’s hard-wired into our brains. Senior centers not only provide a social outlet for the elderly, but they can also teach some important skills that keep their brains and bodies active. From classes on how to use the internet to regular games like cards or basketball, senior centers combine social belonging with active engagement.
Home sharing is a unique opportunity for seniors to stay in their home without living alone. A roommate prevents social isolation by being there for everyday activities like sharing meals and running errands, but also provides quiet companionship like watching television, reading or knitting. While sharing a home might seem confining, it can actually be quite liberating for many seniors. Having a roommate, especially for women, can empower them to be comfortable in their independence. This is especially important for people surviving the loss of a spouse — whether through death or divorce.
Video Calls and Vacations
For solo seniors, facetime from long-distance family members can be an invaluable gift. Loneliness is a major risk factor for depression, especially in seniors. Having a regular phone or webcam call each week with a loved one can help them feel cared for and connected. For seniors with grandchildren living far away, this is a great way to give them a special opportunity to communicate. Joining family members on vacations not only provides needed connections, but also exposes seniors to new experiences. The anticipation of the vacation makes a positive impact in their lives as well. Research shows that people are happier before and after vacations, and continue to feel bursts of happiness when they look at photos taken on the trip.
A Sense of Purpose
Socially isolated seniors tend to feel more pessimistic about the future, believing that the quality of their life is only going to get worse. If they aren’t ill, they think they will be, and whatever ailments they have currently, they think will soon become debilitating. Giving a senior a sense of purpose helps them feel less isolated by giving them something to look forward to, and pride in the contribution they continue to make in their world. Encourage them to volunteer, be more involved at church, spend time at their grandchildren’s school, teach a class, participate in park cleanups, join the board of a nonprofit, or go on regular visits to the local nursing home, Ronald McDonald House or Humane Society chapter.
If a senior’s life is changing drastically, even if it is over a long period of time, be mindful about their living conditions. If you are helping an aging parent downsize, find them a new home in a retirement community that’s near their church or within walking distance of a senior center. If your parent has recently retired, help them plan a few vacations, or sign them up for classes that will keep their minds stimulated. If an aging loved one recently lost a spouse or partner, make plans to have regular outings with them, and invite their friends to come along. Keep them moving and connected. Senior isolation is not inevitable. As a loved one, you can anticipate the situations and plan interventions.
About one in six seniors living alone faces some kind of barrier from the outside world, be it geographics, culture or economics. Ensuring seniors have access to family and friendship support can help alleviate this loneliness. This may mean moving them closer to you or moving you and your family closer to them. This isn’t an easy choice or transition for either party. However, there are a lot of benefits to living closer to an aging loved one — your presence can help reduce the risk for at-home accidents and injury, improve economic conditions, inspire exercise and activity, prevent deteriorating health concerns, and give them a sense of hope and optimism. Just remember that being a caregiver comes with some major responsibilities — often, more than one person can handle. Be sure you manage expectations — both yours and theirs.
After a certain point in their lves, many seniors make the difficult decision that it’s no longer safe for them to drive a vehicle. Unfortunately, adequate transportation services are still behind the curve in most areas. Seniors can’t access programs and resources if they can’t reliably get there, which can ignite the feeling of being trapped or isolated. On top of that, their sense of connectedness and independence can be shattered. Making sure seniors can get where they want to go when they want to get there can help prevent feelings of helplessness and isolation.
Exercise and Activity
Studies have found that seniors who are socially isolated are also more likely to suffer from poor diet and lack of physical activity. Social outlets get seniors up and active, encouraging them to eat well and exercise. Group fitness programs, like Silver Sneakers, are often covered by Medicare and help boost mental and physical health. Even low-impact classes, like yoga or water aerobics, can improve an aging loved one’s sense of well-being. Classes provide structure, giving seniors a reason to leave the house. They also provide opportunities to make new friendships or strengthen current relationships.
With the advent of the internet, the power of communication is in the palm of our hands, and with devices that improve speech and hearing, seniors have many opportunities to connect with technology. For example, for a senior with hearing loss, a silent world is incredibly isolating, even if they are surrounded by family. Finding the right hearing aid or other communications services can be a lifeline. However, it’s always important to remember tech safety tips.
Living alone isn’t always a choice, but how we help our loved ones deal with isolation can be. As family and friends, it’s easy to get caught up in our busy days, forgetting that they are waiting for us to engage with them. Setting reminders for yourself to call, write or visit can help you stay connected, and getting them involved in their community can help disperse the burden of ensuring care. If they seem hesitant to try a class, volunteer, visit a center or get active, try going with them the first few times as they build up their confidence. Once they shake off the shackles of isolation, it is amazing to watch a senior come to life.