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Despite this being one of the richest, most successful and free countries in the world, the USA is home to more lonely seniors than many other locations. In other communities such as Caribbean and Asian families, older members are placed with extended family members and rarely suffer with loneliness.
So, what can we do about it? Turns out, there are quite a few things we can do to ensure our seniors aren’t left without anyone to turn to.
Senior Loneliness – An increasing Problem
It would appear that the problem of loneliness among the older members of our community is not decreasing. In fact, the opposite is true and in a survey completed in Australia, it was discovered that as many as half of all older adults living at home struggled, in some way, with loneliness. What is even more concerning is that by the year 2040, it is thought that the number of lonely seniors could double and with the recent effects of the COVID-19 lockdowns across the globe, loneliness has become a serious issue for seniors who had not previously experienced it.
While there is ongoing research into how to prevent senior loneliness through various interventions, there is still a long way to go. It is going to take efforts on a global scale to combat this problem and the friends and families of older adults need to play an active role in this.
What Are the Main Causes of Senior Loneliness?
As we get older, there is no denying that our lives will change dramatically. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that contribute to loneliness in older people, and understanding them better can help us to tackle them.
For a lot of people in the USA and around the western world, living with a spouse or life partner until the day that they die is considered to be normal. But once your partner passes away, you are left alone. To begin with, your family and friends may rally around, but sooner or later, they need to get back to their lives.
However, you may still feel as though your world has been torn to shreds and will continue to struggle with the bereavement for much longer. A combination of this and being alone can lead to mental health problems such as depression, which in turn can prevent you from wanting to go out; you might say that it is a vicious circle.
Regardless of whether or not you have previously lived with a partner, there are a lot of US seniors that live alone. You may find that you fall into a routine with yourself that can be hard to break. There is almost a comfort in this, and many older people then begin to fear heading out into the world so withdraw further into themselves.
It is only natural that our health will deteriorate over time, and many older adults simply accept this as a point in their lives that they stop going out and interacting with others. This may be because of limited mobility, issues with the senses such as blindness, or problems with memory and cognition. These health problems will then prevent the person from leaving the home for fear of something going wrong.
Moving Away from Friends & Family
For a lot of families, remaining in the same location for many years seems the most convenient thing to do. Everyone can check up on one another and social time is anything but limited. However, if you or your family members decide to move to a new location, this can leave you feeling as though you are totally alone.
If your children relocate to a new town or even abroad, this is a huge deal and will take away a big chunk of your social life. In other situations, some older adults may need to move to a new location where they do not know anyone. It can be difficult to have the confidence to go out and meet new people, and it isn’t long before loneliness takes over.
In a similar way that poor health can prevent a senior from being able to go out as easily, disabilities can also have the same effect.
Lack of Transportation
If you are going to go out then you have to have a mode of transport but for many older people, the option to drive is no longer there. A lot of seniors will give up their license as they are too old to drive or their health conditions limit their ability to safely do so.
For people who live in a remote area, the options for public transport such as buses and trains may be very limited meaning that the person is unable to gain access to places they would otherwise have frequented.
Even if you have spent your life saving a handsome pension, this doesn’t mean that your financial situation will always be perfect. This is a time of life where there is a limited amount of money in the pot, and it needs to be carefully delegated. For this reason, a lot of older adults will put outings and social events on the backburner to avoid eating into their precious funds.
Dangers Caused by Senior Loneliness
What a lot of people aren’t aware of is that loneliness isn’t just something that can make a person feel isolated; this is an issue that can cause a range of other physical and mental health problems.
Loss of Self-Esteem
One of the biggest problems with loneliness is that you can end up finding yourself in a vicious circle. The feeling of isolation can cause you to lose self-esteem, and as a direct result of this, it can then be difficult to find the confidence to get out and about and meet new people.
Boredom & Apathy
With incredibly limited social interactions, seniors can begin to experience significant levels of boredom. Research has shown that boredom can have a serious impact on mental health and eventually may lead to depression or anxiety. As an offshoot of this boredom, seniors may begin to develop apathy which is a lack of interest in doing anything and a lack of motivation. Again, this can be a difficult cycle to break.
Humans are naturally social creatures that thrive off interactions with others; it’s in our DNA, we are pack animals. Spending copious amounts of time alone can be incredibly detrimental to the mental and physical health of an individual and can make them feel as though they are forgotten.
When we feel lonely, this can be displayed in many ways. Emotions may run high, and for some individuals, this can come out as anger. According to sources, anger may be just the tip of the iceberg, and the individual may begin to resent other people, lashing out at them without reason. This can, once again, make integrating back into society much more difficult.
Low Mood & Depression
In a German study, it was found that loneliness was a significant factor in the onset of depression in a study group of adults up to the age of 74 years. For many people, worries about a decline in their quality of life can arise as a direct result of feeling lonely and this can worsen the mood and even lead to clinical depression.
But what is most worrying about this is that depression often leads to suicide attempts. A shocking survey demonstrated that people in the over 85 age bracket were at the highest risk of suicide, with this section of the community having more deaths this way than any other group.
Loss of Appetite/Not Eating Properly
Whether it is as a result of low mood or not having the desire to cook just for themselves, seniors who are lonely may lose their appetite and stop eating properly. This can result in low energy which will contribute to the apathy we discussed earlier on. Not eating a healthy diet or consuming enough calories can lead to physical health problems and a worrying amount of weight loss.
As we age, there is always a risk of a decline in cognition and diseases such as dementia become a very frightening reality. However, by engaging the mind and keeping it sharp, there is a chance of lowering the risk of such conditions. But social interaction is an incredibly important part of this and it has been discovered that isolation can have profound effects on cognition including the ability to process information. Furthermore, a study completed in 2015 demonstrated that there was a much higher risk of developing dementia when a person has limited social interactions.
Increases Blood Pressure
Worrying information released from a 2016 study showed that those suffering from social isolation were at a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Further research has shown that an increase in blood pressure was noted over a 5 year period, monitoring various individuals up to the age of 68. As a direct result of this, the risk of strokes and other coronary related conditions is raised.
Can Increase the Risk of Morbidity
With loneliness comes a significant risk of diseases and physical illness, which can ultimately result in death. Various conditions have been noted to become more problematic in lonely seniors and these include, but are certainly not limited to lung disease, arthritis, and mobility impairments. Research has been conducted on adults with a mean age of 71 which has demonstrated that loneliness can seriously increase the risk of morbidity with mobility being a particular issue.
Ways of Preventing Senior Loneliness
While loneliness can feel crippling, there is always a way out. Fortunately, modern society has a wealth of resources and activities that can help seniors who are feeling isolated.
Looking After a Pet
They say that a dog is man’s best friend, and there is truth to this statement. Having a pet is an incredibly therapeutic experience and can help to combat feelings of loneliness. But much more than mere companionship, your pet will give you a sense of purpose as you will be responsible for taking care of it. A lot of older people feel as though they no longer have any responsibility, so this is an amazing way of tackling feelings of ‘uselessness’.
If you have a dog or other type of pet you can take to the park then this will provide you with ample opportunities to socialize with other owners. And of course, this physical exercise will help to keep your health in check. But simply having a pet has been proven to have health benefits including lower blood pressure and a reduction in anxiety.
Remaining physically fit is something that all of us want, but this isn’t possible without the right exercise. But did you know that you can incorporate this with the chance to meet new people? There are usually a lot of classes running at your local fitness center, including things like swimming, walking, yoga, and tai chi. The great thing about these activities is that they are all low impact and ideal for older adults.
Not only will this help to keep your physical fitness in check, but it will also allow you to connect with like-minded people and perhaps arrange other social events outside of the class.
Get Involved in Your Local Community
There is a lot more going on in most local communities than many seniors are aware of. Not only will this allow you to meet other people, but it will also get you out of the house, which is something that a lot of older people are scared to do.
There are various ways that you might get involved but if you are looking to find a sense of purpose, then volunteering is an excellent way to do this. Moreover, you will have the benefit of helping other people and potentially imparting your wisdom and skills. Here, you will meet a wide range of people from all walks of life, which is always an interesting experience.
If volunteering doesn’t sound appealing to you, then there are other ways to get involved. Most areas have community clubs that center around various interests such as dancing, bridge, quizzing, and many others. There may also be a local day center for older people who want to make friends within the community.
Start a New Hobby
Having a hobby can help to prevent loneliness in more ways than one. Primarily, it is a great way to keep your mind occupied so on days where you don’t see other people, you won’t find yourself at a loose end. What’s more, if you choose a cognitive hobby, this is an excellent way to keep the mind sharp and improve your memory. Alternatively, you might choose a physical hobby that will allow you to stay healthy in other ways.
Secondly, engaging in a hobby may lead you to meet new friends. There are clubs for just about anything, so whether you are interested in painting, crafts, gardening, musical instruments, or anything else, you should be able to find a group of like-minded people to connect with.
Invite Friends or Family Over
It may seem incredibly obvious, but a lot of seniors don’t invite their loved ones over for fear of intruding on their personal time. But for your friends and family, spending time with you will be just as important as other parts of their lives, so don’t be afraid to ask.
You might cook a meal or order a takeout; simply having company is a great way to lift your spirits and prevent loneliness. If you have grandchildren and can take care of them independently, you might offer to have them stay as a way of bonding with them. And let’s not forget that this is a great way to make you feel younger again!
Keep in Touch With Family & Friends Remotely
The major benefit of being a senior in modern society is that we no longer rely on friends, family, and neighbors knocking on the door to check if we are ok. Technology has come a long way, and as such, you can instantly connect with loved ones at the touch of a button.
If you have family that live in remote parts of the world or who lead busy lives which means they cannot physically visit as often as you would like, services like FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, and others allow you to video call people and keep in touch digitally.
This can all be achieved through a smart device, and this doesn’t need to cost the earth. There is a wide range of smartphones and tablets that are affordable, reliable, and will put the world at your fingertips. If this type of tech seems alien to you, there are also many internet and computer classes that will teach you everything you need to know to confidently use modern technology. If you struggle with dexterity then we would advise going for a tablet over a laptop as the touchscreen is far easier to use and they often come with voice commands.
You might also consider joining social media networks as this is an excellent way to stay in touch and see what people are doing. There are a variety of online games built into these platforms that allow an even deeper level of interaction.
When we do not go out of the house, there is a very significant risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and this becomes even more prevalent in the winter months. Now, of course, having light therapy isn’t going to solve problems associated with isolation, but it will help to keep your mood stable and prevent issues with depression.
The best way to do this is to head outside and get some natural light, but there are some clinics that offer light therapy as well, and it has been proven to be incredibly effective. So much so that after just one hour of exposure to light therapy, researchers noted a significant improvement in the depression scores of the test subjects. Further research has shown that not only does light therapy improve depression, but it may also be responsible for improving sleep-related conditions.
Make Yourself Go Out
It can feel very overwhelming when you don’t have anyone to spend time with, but staying in the house isn’t going to solve your problems. While it can be incredibly difficult, it is important to make a point of forcing yourself to go out, even when you don’t want to.
The more that you do this, the more confident you will feel, especially when you start meeting new people. You will gain a new appreciation for life, and your feelings of loneliness will soon lift. There are lots of things you can do. You may start simply by heading to the park for a walk or doing a little shopping. As you gain more confidence, you may go to a cafe for a drink or see a movie at the cinema.
Move into Assisted Living
Moving into an assisted living facility is a major step for a lot of people, and many seniors might feel as though they are giving up some of their independence. However, there are a huge number of benefits to living in these places, and one of the most important is that you will always have someone on hand to help if you are struggling to take care of yourself.
Assisted living also allows you to mix with other people while still having your own accommodation so that you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed. Many assisted living facilities plan excursions and days out which can be great for helping you remain active and social.
Use a Medical Alert System
If you are fearful of going out in case you experience a fall or a medical emergency, this can become debilitating. However, there are medical alert systems that can put you instantly in touch with help, should you find yourself in an emergency situation.
There are various types of systems, but many have GPS tracking so that, no matter where you are, you can always be found. This can often make seniors feel much more confident and give them a new lease on life. Your family members will be able to stay in touch and monitor you, so you know that there is always someone to call upon.
Consider Getting a Mobility Scooter or Powerchair
For a lot of older people, difficulty with mobility plays a big part in why they cannot or do not want to get out of the house. But there are mobility scooters and powerchairs that are designed to help with this and give you much greater freedom.
Not only will you feel a lot more confident when out and about, but modern scooters and powerchairs are designed for various types of terrain, so you will be able to explore much more of the world. In turn, this will allow you to meet other people and enjoy life the way that you want to. Many places are accessible for mobility vehicles, so you won’t feel restricted.