As a society, we’re lonelier than we’ve been at any other point in history. Between our massively increased life expectancy, our habit toward urban isolation, and our emphasis on self-sufficiency, our society has forgotten many of the benefits of having a thriving support network, especially in later life. The dangers of loneliness are often understated, and clouded by stigma, but it’s never been more important to have the conversation about how to cope with social isolation, especially for seniors.
Of Americans over the age of 65, about a third live alone. Of those over 85, that percentage jumps up to about half. Over the past thirty years, the number of Americans of any age or demographic who self-report as being lonely has doubled, now averaging out at about 40%1.
Loneliness is difficult to talk about — for home caregivers, seniors, and the general population — and still more uncomfortable to admit. To admit to loneliness is to confront a loss, or to tacitly suggest that we’ve been unworthy friends or partners. While it can make us feel as though we’ve failed at forging connections — something core to being human, it’s absolutely dangerous to ignore it, and we shouldn’t be expected to hide it any more than we’d hide a heart condition or insomnia.
How Does Loneliness Affect the Health of Seniors?
The meta-analysis2 of a number of studies found that socially isolated individuals were at as much as a 30% greater risk of dying within seven years, with the effect peaking in middle age.
Loneliness correlates with increased risk of heart disease, accelerated cognitive decline, depression, decreased immune response, inflammation, increases in stress and atypical hormone levels, and disruptions in sleep patterns. By the numbers, social isolation is as dangerous as smoking or obesity, especially for seniors.
Some of these factors are mechanical (if you live alone, and suffer a fall, you’re more likely to have secondary complications if no one is around to help) but some of them have to do with our base need for companionship. We speak aloud so that we might be heard. We learn, so that we might share. Our bodies are keyed to react to stimulus from other humans and, absent that stimulus, fall into patterns akin to famine or hibernation. We slow and we stall out and we fade.
A fact of modern life, loneliness is often outside of our control. Children move away, friends are scattered by the winds and tides of their own lives, and the world around us grows at once more connected and more distant, as we see fewer familiar faces in the larger and larger crowds.
Signs of Loneliness in Seniors
For many adults with aging parents or grandparents, it isn’t practical to handle their needs without assistance. In these cases, a trusted home caregiver can fill many of the practical responsibilities. In fact, home caregivers often become cherished friends or part of the family, taking on a surrogate filial role. Since home caregivers spend so much time with an elderly clients, they will become a familiar presence, confidant, and friend.
Knowing that admitting to being lonely is uncomfortable (for many, and males in particular, even unthinkable) it can be up to family members and home caregivers to spot the signs of social isolation in a parent, relative, or client. These signs of loneliness include:
formulaic or repetitive experiences
avoiding talking about friends and activities
an uncharacteristic disengagement from conversation
an uncharacteristic excessive eagerness for conversation
inertia and depression
Loneliness has an inertia about it, and it grows exponentially — meaning that it can be countered by pushes in the other direction, especially early on in its development.
Solutions for Seniors and Home Caregivers
Involvement in community activities or participation in a formalized social group can have a tremendous impact in countering loneliness and these are activities that home caregivers can help facilitate. Whether being the fourth in a bridge group, meeting with friends for a weekly lunch date, or hosting a book club, any consistent, sustained human connection is enough to make a world of difference to one’s health.
Though it may seem like a daunting proposition, social media can be a great way to keep up with children, grandchildren, friends, old colleagues, and the world at large. It’s a great resource that shouldn’t be discounted. A home caregiver can help seniors learn how to use social media and show seniors how social media can be used as a tool for staying in touch with family members and friends.
If you’ve noticed signs of loneliness in your ailing parent, even if they’ve not said anything to you directly, take charge and find a way to help. A home caregiver can be a welcome presence to compliment your visits. And the pattern, the familiarity, and the warmth that home caregivers bring can make all the difference.