We live in a world that is more connected than ever before. Few hours on a commercial airplane and we are on another continent. Catching up with people from all over the world is just a few fingertips away. Distance has never seemed so easy to overcome. So it might seem unusual that as a society, we are battling a loneliness epidemic. But it is remarkably easy to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, which can lead to a serious decline in psychological and physical health and overall well-being.
Loneliness does affect anyone, of any age, but older adults are at increased risk of loneliness and social isolation. Aging brings many changes that can contribute to a more solitary life. This is primarily because they are more likely to be living alone, their social circle begins to shrink, loss of family and friends is more frequent and their physical state often limits them in their social interactions.These limitations can be due to a chronic illness, hearing loss and vision impairments, but if it becomes more difficult for them to go out, they may begin to isolate themselves from the outside world.
Loneliness and social isolation represent a major health concern. They have been linked to lower quality of life, cognitive impairment, reduced well-being and loss of independence.While loneliness is not a mental health issue in itself, it can cause mental health problems. In the case of dementia, loneliness can cause cognitive decline, while on the other hand, dementia can lead to people becoming lonely. The significant negative physical and mental health consequences of social isolation and loneliness also contributes to increased use of health and social care service sand bring substantial cost for health systems.
How common is it?
In the 2020 report published by Cigna 61% of U.S. adults report feeling alone sometimes or always. Data used in this report are collected in mid-2019 (before the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing and isolation measures) which makes these numbers even more concerning. According to Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) at least one in four older adults experiences some mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety or dementia,which highlights how widespread the preexisting conditions loneliness can affect are. The number of people in UK over 50 experiencing loneliness is set to reach two million by 2025/6. This compares to around 1.4 million in 2016/7 – a 49% increase in 10 years.
What to look for?
Elderly people that are socially isolated may not have anyone in their lives to care for them, and they can develop signs of illness without realizing that they or anyone else knows they need help. Also, it can be difficult for people to admit they are feeling lonely and even harder to ask for help. If you look after someone who you think might be struggling with feelings of loneliness, here are some clues that can help you:
Changes in the behavior –are they rapidly losing or gaining weight, neglecting their appearance, personal hygiene or simply not being themselves? All of these things can indicate that your loved one is going through something. Changes in the attitude are also a good thing to go by. Do they seem easily flustered or unusually sad? If you’re seeing your grandparents or parents for the first time in a while, take notice if anything is different about them.
Distancing from the communities they used to be part of – in some cases, seniors are refusing to go out or they make excuses as to why they’re unwilling to attend events with friends and family. Although it sounds paradoxical, people experiencing loneliness sometimes tend to isolate themselves even more due to loss of confidence and influence behavior. It is crucial to prevent a downward spiral of loneliness.
Loss of people in their social circle – if your loved ones recently lost their spouse, friends or neighbors this can affect them tremendously even if they don’t want to admit it.
Retirement and changing locations - many seniors look forward to retirement and having more time for their family and hobbies. But for a significant chunk of them, especially ones living alone lack of their day-to-day contacts and change in routine can feel very challenging and isolating. Moving to another country and leaving their social circle behind or moving from home to care facility can be very difficult as well.
What can be done about it?
Spend more time with elderly people from your family. Sometimes the best thing to do is be around people, but our busy lives often prevent us from doing that. When you have an opportunity to spend time with seniors in your family, try to actively engage them in conversation, ask them questions and try to make them feel heard. It may not feel easy at first, but give it some time and results might amaze you.
Encourage them to take on a new hobby. Learning something new is the best way to keep the brain and joining groups based on the same interests is one of the best ways of making connections. If your older ones are able to physically meet with other people, group workshops could be a great option for them. Online courses are also a good option. Learning journeys are a great way to explore new areas of interest and stay inspired.
Check on them regularly. For people living alone a short call from their relative is often the main event of the day. If you are able to take a few minutes out of your day and phone them, it might mean more to them than you think. The reality is that stresses of daily life often take over and we don’t even notice how quickly few weeks passed. This is where technology helps big time. Thriving.ai offers a mood check-in that tracks mood in real time and supports your loved ones when needed. You can see how they are doing without making them feel you are monitoring them. If you notice their mood going down, you can react quickly.
Ask for help and inform them where they can get help. Here are some helpful resources.
Social isolation and loneliness are complex phenomena and it is important that they cannot be completely eliminated. Nevertheless, it is clear that various factors can increase the risk of prolonged isolation and loneliness that can seriously affect decrease the quality of life. It is important to recognize the warning signs and engage. Crucial thing is to be patient, understanding and persistent.