Overcoming risks of loneliness
Thanks to breakthroughs in medicine and nutrition in recent years, we are living longer than ever before. But this increase in life expectancy also brings an increase in the number of diseases, injuries and impairments that affect older adults. With this in mind, we at the local Visiting Angels office in Salem have created this series of articles to keep our older population and their families informed and to offer some practical advice for meeting the challenges faced by seniors and those who care for them.
As human beings, we are hardwired for social interaction. Our success as a species and as individuals is due in no small part to the fact that we can communicate with one another and work cooperatively as a community, as well as the fact that these communities are strengthened by the emotional bonds that we form with one another.
While these social relationships may be one of the keys to our success, they are also deeply ingrained in our psychological makeup, so much so that when we feel we are not getting enough interaction with other people, it starts to affect us physically. And with the exception of infants and young children, perhaps no age group is more impacted by the effects of social isolation and loneliness than older adults.
Although they can be connected, social isolation and loneliness are not the same. Social isolation occurs when we do not get enough interaction with other people, while loneliness is the emotional state of feeling that we are alone. Social isolation often leads to loneliness, but it is possible to have one without the other.
For reasons that researchers are still working to understand, some people can feel lonely even though they are constantly interacting with others socially, while other individuals do not experience feelings of loneliness even though they have no regular interaction with other people. And for a variety of reasons, seniors are more likely to experience social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
For many older adults, social isolation takes place after their children have grown and moved away to start families of their own. They may have relocated to another city or maybe they live nearby and just got busy with the responsibilities of raising their own children, but whatever the reason, they don’t spend as much time as they used to interacting with older family members.
In other cases, those seniors have reached the stage in their lives where many friends and family members have passed away. Other friends may be affected by dementia or memory problems that make it difficult for them to recognize those they once held dear. Either way, the friend groups and opportunities to socialize that existed in their younger days are now gone.
Unfortunately for many older adults, physical and cognitive declines mean it is no longer safe for them to drive a car. This loss of mobility is yet another obstacle to their ability to interact and socialize with others.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the risk of a person dying prematurely from causes related to social isolation, rivals the risks caused by smoking, obesity and a lack of physical activity. The CDC reported a 29 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke associated with either social isolation or loneliness or both. Social isolation was also linked to a higher risk of dementia.
Increased rates of depression, anxiety and suicide have been linked to loneliness, and patients with heart failure are almost four times more likely to die when they are experiencing feelings of loneliness. The risk of hospitalization for lonely heart failure patients increases by 68 percent, and their emergency room visits increase by 57 percent, the CDC reports.
However, there are ways to combat the health threats caused by social isolation and loneliness. Just because family and friends may be far away, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still opportunities to meet and interact with new people. Seniors centers and community centers offer older adults the opportunity meet new people their own age.
Volunteering with a church group or community service organization is another way for older adults to stay active. The sense of satisfaction that comes from knowing they’re helping other often reinforces the feeling that the person is still an important part of their community, giving them a sense of purpose and acting as a counter to loneliness.
Of course, while these recommendations have been proven to combat the effects of loneliness and Isolation, they are impractical in the age of COVID-19, when older adults are among the most vulnerable to the virus and are now forced to isolate themselves from others as the best precaution against catching the coronavirus.
Social distancing, however, does not necessarily mean no human contact whatsoever. In the digital age there are more ways than ever to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, even if physical contact is not the best option. Video chat apps such as Skype, Zoom, Facebook Messenger and Apple’s Face Time allow people to talk face to face over long distances when meeting in person is not practical or safe.
And for those seniors who may not have embraced these new forms of communication, there’s still the good old-fashioned telephone call. Like the old AT&T commercials once said, you can “reach out and touch someone” over the phone.
Information provided by Visiting Angels, America’s choice in homecare. Visiting Angels non-medical homecare services allow people to continue enjoying the independence of their daily routines in familiar surroundings. To set up an appointment for a no-obligation in-home consultation, call 330-332-1203.