Simply by being human we all spend our lives interacting in various social situations with others. As we age however, those interactions can change and also adversely affect our health. Leaving the workforce, having family members or longtime friends move away, loss of a spouse or a sibling all contribute to a changing social structure.
Several recent studies have shown that loneliness in senior citizens can be directly linked to increased risk for heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. The key to understanding the impact though lies in the significance of being alone versus feelings of loneliness. Perceived isolation, whether we feel lonely or not, is much more important to health than physical isolation. One study of seniors found that 43% of the participants felt feelings of loneliness but only 16% actually lived alone. In another study, two thirds of the older adults who said they were lonely were either married or living with someone. The emotion of loneliness is what places stress on the body.
Given these results what can we do to help ourselves or someone that may be suffering with loneliness? There are many potential solutions but here are a few ideas:
Check for problems that may be causing withdrawal. Several medical conditions can lead to stress in social situations that might lead a senior to be less social. Trouble with hearing and the fear of an accident from incontinence are leading causes of withdrawal but both have potential medical remedies.
Volunteer. Volunteering can provide an increased sense of purpose which can sustain a healthier lifestyle that includes improved physical, mental, and social activity. Depending on your interests and life experiences there are countless organizations looking for volunteers.
Become a pet owner. Studies show that pets of all kinds can lower blood pressure, create an increased sense of purpose in taking care of a living thing, and create a greater sense of companionship that reduces feelings of loneliness.
Utilize community resources. Reach out to local groups and agencies that specialize in elder services. See what programs and activities are going on at your local senior centers.
Use technology to your advantage. With video chats, e-mail, and facebook amongst other options, utilize technology to keep in touch. As family relationships and long standing friendships breakdown due to distance try to bridge the gap with a modern twist.
Share your interests. Look for clubs or social circles that share your passions. Find a garden club, book club, card group, or whatever excites you. Can’t find one to suit your interests - work to start one.
As humans, we are by default social creatures. Our brains love company and seek stimulation so don’t sit back and let loneliness adversely affect your health. Not every idea will work for every situation but create a plan to get reacquainted with the world and your health will reap the benefits.