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Is Loneliness Bad For Your Health?

This time of year reminds us how fortunate we are to have that special someone in our lives.  What if that special someone is no longer with us and we are elderly and live alone – only occasionally interacting with friends or family?  For many older adults this is their reality. Children of elderly parents often worry about mom or dad feeling lonely, with most if not all of their old social network gone. But did you know recent studies show that loneliness is also bad for your health?

 

How bad is it? A 2010 Brigham Young University review of studies involving more than 300,000 people concluded that loneliness is as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. In a 2012 Archives of Internal Medicine study, older adults who described themselves as lonely had a 56 percent higher risk of developing functional decline (such as losing the ability to walk or climb stairs). They had a 45 percent increased risk of dying.

 

A large part of aging is dealing with change.  Children growing up and moving away, retirement, dealing with illnesses or experiencing the death of close family and friends. Some of these changes may result in loneliness, especially the major transitions like illness and death. A common thread is that the relationships and interests you've grown to trust and enjoy are no longer available, at least not in the same way they once were. Here are some ways to help an older adult reconnect with the parts of life that contribute to better physical and mental health.

 

  • Get ready physically. There is an important link between how they are doing physically and how comfortable they are with taking on new challenges. Help them eat good food, get adequate rest, and (with the advice of a doctor) start a regular exercise program.
  • Get the necessary information. If you/they are in a retirement community or assisted living facility, recommend reading the newsletter or bulletin boards for news of upcoming events and ongoing programs. Talk to the social services and activities professionals on staff. If they live at home, hire an elder companion, someone who comes into a residence of any type to talk, play cards, or otherwise connect.
  • Be willing to learn. Encourage the senior in your life to be curious and willing to try out something new. You can find amazing programs at the local library, senior center, or community college.
  • Establish a personal routine. Loneliness sometimes grows out of too much empty time. Talk to older adults about getting up and starting the day at a regular time; starting their morning by reading or tuning in to the day's events through newspapers, radio or television; connecting with one or more friends by telephone each day, just to "check in;" going to exercise class or for a walk; arranging to eat a meal or snack with a friend.
  • Include service to others. No matter who you are, where you live, or where you are in your life, there are ways for you to help others. Opportunities for seniors in your community may include reading to children at the local library, telephoning people who cannot get out, filling shopping bags at a food bank, or talking to a lonely neighbor.

 

Don’t expect to change their life overnight. It is probably best to take things one step at a time. But, with a little nudge, feelings of loneliness and isolation can be overcome, and seniors can find satisfying new patterns and relationships in their lives.