Overcoming Senior Loneliness
America is a culture that celebrates youth. From our music and movie stars, to our lifestyles encouraging us to get cheap disposable household furniture and goods and replace it all frequently, too much focus is on new and shiny things, and even the elderly adults who helped make this country what it is can be discarded by the wayside when they’re no longer convenient. Too many of our older citizens live in isolation, due to a variety of factors that cause them to be cut off from others. Whether it’s by choice or by circumstance, the elderly can find themselves distanced from and out of communication with family, friends, and other social connections. When this happens, it can cause older adults to feel unwanted, unneeded, without purpose, and left behind by the world. In other words, disposable.
When seniors are disengaged from their surroundings, or forgotten or cast aside, it is symptomatic of a sad epidemic of loneliness and social isolation among the elderly, according to researchers and health care professionals. For this reason, it is important for anyone with a senior loved one in their life to make a real effort to try and make that loved one feel as though they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and included in the world around them.
Loneliness is experienced by just about everyone on the planet at one time or another. Loneliness, however, is simply feeling alone, regardless of how many social contacts one has. Isolation is the actual lack of personal and social connections. And in recent years, increasing numbers of seniors report feeling alone and/or isolated. While this has gotten worse since the social distancing and quarantines of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was true even before that, with evidence suggesting that the sense of dislocation and solitude has only gotten worse.
What makes the upward trend in senior isolation a concern is that studies time and time again have shown that loneliness and isolation are often associated with a whole host of physical and emotional illnesses that can diminish the quality of life in an older person. Put simply, when seniors are left alone they can waste away to nothingness.
Chronic loneliness has the same kind of deleterious effect on the body as chronic stress. A study by the National Institute of Aging found that levels of stress hormones like cortisol are raised by loneliness. Cortisol impairs immune response and causes inflammation. Prolonged loneliness is debilitating, and can leave one vulnerable to developing depression and anxiety, and even heart disease or obesity. Other studies have found links between social isolation and diseases of dementia, like Alzheimer’s.
Because of the rarity of multigenerational family living situations, most senior Americans don’t live with an adult child or grandchild. And with people moving for jobs and college and more, they may not even be living in the same state. The distance, and busy schedules, many make in person family interactions infrequent or sometimes even nonexistent. Factor in the inevitable passing on of many of their friends and family, and seniors can find their peer groups dwindling down to just a few people.