Senior Loneliness & Isolation - A Growing Epidemic

A worrying and growing trend is starting to come to light regarding our aging seniors. There is growing evidence of health risks that stem from loneliness and social isolation in seniors, and the numerous negative effects it has on both mental and physical health. While loneliness and isolation is something many adults can relate to, the increased negative impact it has on seniors health is gaining awareness - but still has a long way to go.  

Our aging population deserve to be properly cared for as they age, much like they cared for us as we grew into adults. Often times we don’t think of our parents or grandparents as lonely, or the growing health concerns that can result if that loneliness is left too long.

What is Isolation and Loneliness in Seniors?

A study from the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has found: 

  • 17% of American adults 65 and older are isolated
  • Research shows a 26% increased risk of death due to subjective feeling of loneliness
  • 6 million adults 65 and older have a disability that prevents them from leaving their homes without help
  • 51% of people 75 and older live alone

When we think of isolation and loneliness, we often attribute it to feelings of sadness and depression. This is the same as seniors, but with the added threat to physical and mental health. Since seniors are in a more fragile state in terms of declining health and cognitive function, the negative effects of social isolation are more severe.

It is important to know their is a subtle difference in isolation and loneliness, and this is vital to understand as each require a different form of remedy. Social isolation is the objective state of not having enough people around to socialize with, whereas loneliness is the subjective state of not having enough social relationships or not enough regular contact with people. If these two concepts sound similar, think about it like this: someone who is socially isolated may not necessarily feel lonely, and someone who is surrounded by others can still feel lonely.

Knowing the difference between these two allows you to effectively deal with them better. For example; if someone feels lonely but they are surrounded by people, the solution would not be to surround them with more people, as that was not the issue in the first place. 

What Causes Isolation and Loneliness in Seniors?

For seniors, the feeling of isolation and loneliness can come from a number of sources, but all contribute to an overall feeling of being left out or forgotten. The primary causes for isolation and loneliness are:

  • Living alone with little to no contact with friends/family.
    • Many seniors are living in homes or facilities by themselves with no friends or family who regularly visit. In addition to this, with the majority of society communicating through mobile technology and the internet, many seniors who do not have access to these devices often fall through the cracks of family communication.
  • Having chronic health problems that contribute to difficulty in mobility.
    • When seniors are confined to wheelchairs, or simply have trouble walking on their own it can limit the freedom a senior has to interact with the community. Dealing with variety of chronic health conditions often don’t have the energy or time to also engage in social events or activities.
  • Having no existing children/family.
    • Many seniors do not have any living family members or have lost contact with their family. Due to the other sources of isolation, it can be increasingly difficult to make new friends and meet new people when you spend the majority of your time alone.
  • Lack of transportation.
    • Many seniors are unable to drive themselves, or the few that do often do not have access to a car. This makes it difficult for seniors to travel to events or places with ease and is often what prevents many seniors from visiting others.
  • Living with low income or lack of financial freedom.
    • Having limited funds or access to financial support is another major factor in isolation and loneliness as it means these seniors cannot utilize the various services available. 

What is Being Done?

Now that researchers are identifying the link between loneliness and decreased health, there has been a rising surge of attention from healthcare groups, medical researchers and tech-based companies.

Awareness

One of the major factors behind social change comes from increased awareness. While the link between senior isolation and loneliness and its negative effects on health have been known for a few years, the public perception still still needs to catch up. 

The media has been recently bringing light to the issue of isolation and loneliness which contributes to more action being done to remedy the issue. It is interesting to note that major outlets across the U.S., Canada and the UK have all recently released articles discussing the issue. Forbes recently posted an article discussing the growing health concern of loneliness in older adults. In Canada, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) also posted a story discussing how it is becoming an epidemic. In the UK, The Guardian also has an article discussing how loneliness is more than just sadness and is being considered a health risk. Having major publications across the globe contributing to awareness is helping, and will continue to help, seniors who suffer from loneliness and isolation.

Improved Access to Information and Services

While there are a variety of social organizations and events aimed at reaching out to seniors, many aging adults find it difficult or frustrating “navigating the system” in order to find out about these services. This causes many seniors to avoid engaging with the organizations that seek to assist with loneliness and isolation.

A pivotal part of reducing loneliness and isolation is ensuring the seniors who need them most have an easy way to access the information, and can connect with organizations without hassle.

  • The UK has taken the lead on this initiative with the “Campaign to End Loneliness” launched back in 2011. This campaign brings together over 600 national, international and local organizations who work together to reduce loneliness for seniors. They focus on community action, research and policy to help future generations fight loneliness in aging adults.
  • In the U.S., the AARP has launched their website Connect2Affect that also aims to distribute information on how to beat loneliness and provide additional information and resources to seniors and their families. Their goal is to “create a network of resources that meets the needs of anyone who is isolated or lonely”.
  • The government of Canada has launched the website Seniors.gc.ca that offers a wide range of information for seniors in hopes of providing easier access for the aging population. The site hosts information on caregivers, aging in place, age-friendly workplaces and various articles on topics ranging from financial planning to avoiding frauds and scams. 

What’s Next

It is hard to say for certain what the next 5 - 10 years will look like in terms of senior isolation and loneliness. But with the recent surge of public awareness in the media, it will help spread the message and create more opportunities to assist as society becomes more aware of this growing epidemic.

With the global effort of making information and services for seniors more available and easy to access, it becomes easier for seniors and the general public to take action and become informed. Being able to help your aging loved ones avoid isolation and loneliness is steadily becoming a less daunting task and with the concerted efforts of people who care about the livelihood of seniors, we can hope to see an end to loneliness and isolation for seniors in the foreseeable future.