FAQs about Loneliness

Q?

Loss of a spouse, risk factor for loneliness and isolation.

A.

Losing a spouse is an event that becomes more common as people enter older age. The loss of a spouse has been shown by numerous studies to increase seniors’ vulnerability to emotional and social isolation, says the same report from the British Columbia Ministry of Health. Besides the loneliness brought on by bereavement, the loss of a partner may also mean the loss of social interactions that were facilitated by being part of a couple. Ensuring seniors have access to family and friendship support can help alleviate this loneliness.

Q?

Physical and geographic isolation

A.

“One in six seniors living alone in the United States faces physical, cultural, and/or geographical barriers that isolate them from their peers and communities,” reports the National Council on Aging. “This isolation can prevent them from receiving benefits and services that can improve their economic security and their ability to live healthy, independent lives.” Referring isolated older adults to senior centers, activity programs and transportation services can go a long way toward creating valuable connections and reducing isolation.

Q?

Socially isolated seniors are more pessimistic about the future.

A.

According to the National Council on Aging, socially isolated seniors are more likely to predict their quality of life will get worse over the next five to 10 years, are more concerned about needing help from community programs as they get older, and are more likely to express concerns about aging in place. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) says community-based programs and services are critical in helping ward off potential problems and improving the quality of life for older people.

Q?

Loneliness causes high blood pressure

A.

A study in Psychology and Aging indicated a direct relationship between loneliness in older adults and increases in systolic blood pressure over the course of 4 years. These increases were independent of race, ethnicity, gender, and other possible contributing factors. Researchers suggest that the early interventions for loneliness may be key to preventing both the isolation and associated health risks.

Q?

Social isolation in seniors is linked to long-term illness

A.

In the PNAS study previously mentioned, illnesses and conditions such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and depression were associated with social isolation. Ensuring adequate care for our loved ones’ illnesses can help prevent this isolation.

For homebound seniors, phone calls and visits are a critical part of connecting with loved ones. Others may find that moving to an assisted living community addresses both issues — the need for ongoing care and the desire for companionship

Q?

LGBTQ seniors are much more likely to be socially isolated

A.

LGBTQ seniors are twice as likely to live alone, according to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Additionally, they are more likely to be single, more likely to be estranged from their biological families, and they are less likely to have children.

Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination may be major roadblocks to support LGBTQ seniors. However, there are increasingly more community groups and online resources devoted to helping these elders avoid isolation.

Q?

Social isolation makes seniors more vulnerable to elder abuse

A.

Many studies show a connection between social isolation and higher rates of elder abuse, reports the National Center on Elder Abuse. Researchers aren’t certain whether isolated adults are more likely to fall victim to abuse, or are a result of abusers attempting to isolate the elders from others to minimize risk of discovery.

A critical strategy for reducing elder abuse is speaking up. This is because abuse, neglect and exploitation often go unreported. Maintaining connections with senior loved ones helps ensure their safety.

Q?

Senior isolation increases the risk of mortality

A.

According to a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. One possible explanation: “People who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.” Researchers state that efforts to reduce isolation are the key to addressing the issue of mortality.

Q?

Perceived loneliness contributes to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

A.

Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying social isolation for 30 years. One frightening finding is that feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline. Cacioppo states “we evolved to be a social species, it’s hard-wired into our brains, and when we don’t meet that need, it can have physical and neurological effects.”

Q?

Isolation

A.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone at the time of the census. As people get older, their likelihood of living alone increases. The AARP reports that more and more older adults do not have children. That means that there are fewer family members to provide company and care as those adults become seniors.

While living alone does not inevitably lead to social isolation, it can certainly be a contributing factor. Another factor to consider is how often seniors engage in social activities.

Statistics Canada reports that 80% of Canadian seniors participate in one or more social activities per month, which leaves out the remaining one-fifth of seniors.

Social contacts tend to decrease as we age for reasons such as retirement, the death of friends and family, or lack of mobility. Regardless of the causes of senior isolation, the consequences can be alarming and detrimental. Additionally, perceived social isolation — the feeling that you are lonely — is a struggle for many older people. Fortunately, research regarding the risks, causes, and prevention of loneliness in seniors have provided insight on this matter for the past couple of decades.