Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to poor health outcomes in seniors, according to numerous studies. Moderate to severe loneliness persists across the adult lifespan but is particularly found to be more serious during three age periods: Late 20s, mid-50s and the late 80s.
The Effects of Loneliness and Isolation
Why is this so important? They can be subtle conditions, and even those people who are not considered to be at high risk, or have major physical disorders or mental illness report them to researchers but not to their families or friends. Accordingly, health officials have identified these conditions to be more of a health care crisis than tobacco use or obesity. They can lead to numerous harmful health effects in older adults, including (but not limited to): an increased number of falls, re-hospitalization, and an increased risk for dementia. These conditions can also be a precursor to diabetes, a stroke, coronary heart disease, chronic lung disease, elevated blood pressure, and even death. Loneliness could be as much of a physical risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
Loneliness vs. Isolation
So, what’s the difference between loneliness and isolation? There are different types of loneliness and it can be a transient feeling that comes and goes. It could be situational, for example, only occurring at certain times such as during holidays. It can be defined as a subjective, unwelcome feeling of lack or loss of companionship. It happens when there is a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have and those that we want. Additionally, it can be chronic when someone feels lonely all the time.
Loneliness is closely linked to social isolation, but it is not the same thing. Isolation is an objective state whereby the number of contacts a person has can be counted. One way to describe the distinction is that you can be lonely in a crowded room, but you will not be socially isolated.
Helping Someone Cope
How can you help? Social networks or friendships not only have an impact on reducing the risk of mortality or developing certain diseases, but they also help people to recover when they do fall ill. It is not difficult to promote more connectedness and social health. We can address incontinence issues, encourage dining with others, take them to hearing and vision tests, and help them get to church services or club meetings. Give them something to take care of, like plants or pets. Supply affection, extra support during periods of grief and loss, maintain hobbies and activities that are social in nature. Make transportation more available, and promote a sense of purpose, such as identifying volunteering opportunities.
Most important of all may be to recognize isolated seniors and reach out to their families and friends who may not have noticed these conditions. They may thrive in an environment of community living with other older adults. Moving to one of these places can create opportunities to develop new friendships, and that is always a bonus.
About the Author: Resident Services Coordinator at St. Paul’s Manor, Cheryl Cohen, is an End of Life Specialist with a B.A. in Psychology, an M.A. in Gerontology and she is currently obtaining an M.S. in Thanatology.