People Need People

Related topics: Mental and Emotional Health, Seniors and the Internet, Mental Health

Group of senior friends enjoying one another's company

What condition raises the risk of death by 14 percent, increases the likelihood that a person will develop Alzheimer's disease, weakens the immune system, raises blood pressure, leads to sleep problems and even causes changes on the genetic level? And may be worse for us than obesity—or even smoking?

This condition, say a host of researchers, is called loneliness.

During the past decade, numerous experts have shown that the human drive to spend time with others is as strong as hunger and thirst, and that loneliness is a major health risk. In March, the Association for Psychological Science published a collection of studies about loneliness, including interesting insights from University of Chicago researchers John Cacioppo and Stephanie Cacioppo. (Fun fact: the Cacioppos, who are married, met while they were taking part at scientific conferences on social neuroscience.)

These researchers say that older Americans today face an epidemic of loneliness. Senior services agencies, families and seniors themselves are called upon to help overcome barriers to social connection.

Here are eight of those challenges, and ways seniors and their families can overcome them:

  • A changed life. At a certain age, we might find ourselves at the peak of sociability, enjoying a lifetime of personal relationships—and then life changes. Retirement, loss of our spouse, our children growing up and moving away, making a move ourselves after we retire … any of these factors can disrupt the long-term social connections we might have taken for granted. If this is the case, look into new ways to spend time with others: your local senior center, volunteer work, clubs and other opportunities in your community.
  • Health challenges. Loneliness raises the risk of illness and disability—but the opposite is also true. Chronic health conditions may cause seniors to withdraw and become homebound. "Putting a halt to socializing only contributes to a downward spiral," cautions Meaghan Barlow of Concordia University. "The fact that loneliness can lead to further complications means that measures can be taken to prevent the effects from looping back around. Dealing with a chronic illness shouldn't prevent you from still trying to get out there if you can."
  • Transportation limitations. Beginning when we are teenagers, most Americans hop in our cars at a moment's notice to visit a friend, go to work, volunteer at our children's school … so if the changes of aging force us to give up the car keys, our lives can feel drastically curtailed. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that millions of disabled seniors spend most of their hours at home! But there are alternatives to driving. It's OK to ask family or friends for a ride. Check out the public transportation options in your community. Many public transit agencies offer fun tutorial tours that will transform you into a bus or subway expert in no time. Seniors with mobility challenges may qualify for accessible transportation services. Professional in-home caregivers can also help clients get out and about.
  • Limited income. Many seniors are living on a substantially smaller amount of money than they did when they were working. They may not be able to take advantage of some of their old favorite social opportunities. But our communities know the many benefits of keeping seniors active and engaged, and they offer many senior activity programs that cost little or nothing. Senior centers offer a great range of programs. Parks and recreation departments have senior-friendly exercise classes and art programs. Volunteering and advocacy are great ways to make social connections. And if you're able, consider taking a part-time job—not only for the extra money, but also to increase your interaction with other people.
  • Cognitive impairment. Seniors with Alzheimer's disease or other dementia still have social needs. Yet sadly, this can be challenging. Communication changes mean that people often feel unsure of how to interact with a friend who has dementia. (Find tips in this factsheet from the National Institute on Aging.) Studies show that even if a person with dementia is unable to remember a visit, the emotional benefit is lasting. Today, there are special programs for people with memory loss, such as adult day centers and adaptive recreation activities, such as Alzheimer's cafes where people with dementia and their families can socialize in a safe, affirming environment. Sometimes as the disease progresses, a memory care facility might be the best choice. Call your local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association to learn more.
  • Depression. An estimated 20 percent of seniors experience depression, which can range from a minor problem to a life-threatening illness. Depression is treated with medication, counseling and lifestyle changes—and one of the most important lifestyle "treatments" is to spend more time with others. It's so important to interrupt the cycle of depression and isolation. Make a point of adding extra social opportunities to your life—and seek help right away if feelings of sadness and lack of energy persist. Consider a support group for both companionship, and for practical help with the issues you might be dealing with.
  • Today's online society. Some seniors report feeling left behind in these days when so many people communicate online, spend more time with their Facebook friends than their IRL (in real life) friends, and seem to be texting rather than talking to the people they're with. Maybe it's time to join the online crowd! Studies show Internet use reduces depression and isolation in older adults. Many seniors today are emailing friends and family, Skyping with their grandkids, posting on chat boards, and reconnecting with old friends on Facebook. If this seems intimidating, look into computer classes at the local senior center or ask a young relative to give you some lessons. But remember that online friendships are relatively superficial. Using online socialization to facilitate in-person socialization can be the best, most rewarding use of these new media.
  • Shyness and introversion. Experts have been studying this surprisingly complicated topic for some time. Some of us are social butterflies, while others like a lot of alone time. Is it OK for introverts to hole up more at home as they grow older? Some studies say that so long as a person feels socially connected, they don't need to spend a huge amount of time being socially active. But according to other experts, even people who enjoy solitude and don't perceive themselves as lonely still benefit by spending more time in the presence of others. Choose activities that are comfortable for you. If you don't like to go out, invite someone to your home. Next time you are going to binge watch a season of your favorite TV program, find a friend to share the popcorn.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2015 IlluminAge

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