Everybody knows what it's like to feel lonely from time to time. But for some people, loneliness isn't just a fleeting feeling — it's a way of life. And for seniors and people with disabilities, chronic loneliness can have a devastating impact on all areas of life.
It's a well-known fact that loneliness is a health hazard, just like smoking and living a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, not having any social connections could be even more dangerous than other common health risks. It's difficult to list out all the negative health consequences of loneliness, because there are simply so many. Social isolation raises inflammation levels throughout the body, which can contribute to the development of heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. This is dangerous for anybody, but for seniors and people with disabilities — whose health may be especially fragile to begin with — it can be devastating, leading to quick physical decline.
Loneliness is also hard on a person's mind and spirit. Seniors who have no close friendships may not have anywhere to turn when they need a supportive shoulder or a listening ear. They may stay inside all day because they don't have much reason to get out of the house, which only makes the problem worse. It doesn't take long for this type of isolated lifestyle to turn into depression. And depression, once it has a foothold, tends to snowball; it's hard for a person to turn their situation around once they've lost the will to do so.
It's clear that preventing loneliness in seniors should be a top priority for family members and home care services. This can be done by encouraging seniors to maintain old friendships and meet new people. Strong friendships work in the opposite way as loneliness — they help to keep people healthy, active, and engaged in their community. Even the companionship of a home caregiver can ease the burden of loneliness.
7 Reasons Friendships Matter for Seniors and People with Disabilities
Here are seven of the main reasons seniors and people with disabilities need friends.
1. Companionship helps to keep people physically healthy.
Physical health isn't all about working out and eating plenty of vegetables. A person's social life also plays a large part in how healthy they are. And just as social isolation tends to stress a person's health and break down their body, friendships help to keep people strong and physically resilient. Seniors with plenty of friends have lower levels of inflammation and aren't as likely to have high blood pressure, dementia, or arthritis.
2. People with plenty of friends have better mental health.
The health benefits of friendship go far beyond just the physical. Seniors and people with disabilities who have a wide social circle are typically happier and are at much less risk for developing depression. There are many reasons for this. Spending time with friends is a good source of stress relief, and friends can provide emotional support in ways that family members or home caregiving professionals sometimes can't. People with lots of friends are also less likely to develop debilitating illnesses such as dementia, which means they stay independent for longer. This, in turn, can increase their happiness and quality of life by quite a bit.
3. It's easier to stay physically active with a wide social circle.
To stay healthy, it's important to get moving. But many people become more sedentary as they get older and their social circle shrinks. If a senior or someone with a disability feels like they have no reason to get off the couch, their health and well-being will most likely take a hit. Someone with an active social life, on the other hand, stays active simply by virtue of going out more, especially if they enjoy physical hobbies like dancing or hiking.
4. Strong friendships can help people live longer.
Thanks to the physical and mental health benefits of friendship, it's no surprise that people with good social networks tend to live longer than their more isolated counterparts. And what's more, people with friends often retain more of their independence throughout their golden years, which means they have a better quality of life for longer, too.
5. Friendships can help to replace losses in other areas of life.
Loss is an inevitable part of life. By the time a person is ready to think about hiring a home caregiver, they've probably retired from a job, watched their children grow up and move out, and left some friendships and relationships behind. If they don't take steps to fill those voids, life can start to feel empty. Spending more time with friends is a great way for seniors to stay connected and continue having new experiences.
6. Better social support means that people can help each other out.
Everyone needs a little help now and then. Seniors with a strong network of friends can get satisfaction from helping their friends out, and they can count on having someone to give them a hand if they need it. A home caregiver can also be a great source of help and companionship for seniors who need a significant amount of assistance.
7. Having friends gives people a sense of purpose.
Perhaps more than anything else, a sense of purpose is essential for a healthy mind and a happy life. Having friends — and a sense of caring and responsibility towards other people — is a wonderful way for a person to maintain or renew their sense of purpose.
Using Home Care Services to Prevent Loneliness
Preventing loneliness in seniors should be a top priority for home caregiving professionals and the family members of seniors. Friendship is far more important than many people give it credit for, especially for seniors and people with disabilities. It can literally make the difference between health and sickness, happiness and depression. Home care services can be one excellent source of companionship, especially for housebound seniors. Caregivers and family members should also encourage seniors to go out, socialize with their peers, and stay in contact with valued friends from the past.