For the media

Staying healthy by staying connected

By The Health News Team | May 22, 2023
Mother and daughter hugging on the couch

According to the AARP Foundation, more than 8 million seniors in America experience prolonged isolation, which can result in health effects comparable to the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes each day.

“We often talk about the importance of taking care of our physical and mental health, but equally important is our social health,” says Caroline Atterton, lead therapist with the Sharp Mesa Vista Senior Intensive Outpatient Program. “Social isolation and feelings of loneliness can be a real health risk and a precursor to a multitude of medical comorbidities.”

AARP reports that isolation and loneliness in seniors is associated with higher rates of:

  • Chronic health conditions, including heart disease

  • Weakened immune system

  • Depression and anxiety

  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

  • Admission to nursing homes

  • Increased use of emergency services

  • Death

“When we’re lonely, we withdraw, we stay home, we might not take care of our bodies in the way that we used to,” says Atterton. “We might not select healthier foods, engage in exercise or take care of our hygiene.”

Isolation risk factors

There is also a connection between loneliness and mental health distress, Atterton says, including anxiety and depression, sleep problems and using alcohol to cope. “People can experience isolation and loneliness due to all manner of life events and circumstances,” she says. “But the most changes due to life transitions probably occur in our senior years.”

Atterton says these factors put older adults at greater risk for isolation:

  • Living alone, often due to widowhood

  • Retirement or other major life transition

  • Lack of friends and companions

  • Poor physical health, making socialization difficult

  • Living in a rural, unsafe or inaccessible location

  • Lack of transportation

  • Financial difficulties

  • Having psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities, such as depression or impaired cognitive functioning

Help prevent isolation

Atterton encourages older adults and their caregivers to be on the lookout to see if they are at risk for isolation. She suggests that we can help combat isolation by building connections with older adults around us — those in our family, neighborhood and communities.

If you are concerned about a loved one or neighbor, Atterton suggests the following ways to offer support:

  • Reach out to friends and loved ones who are at risk for isolation. Bring meals, call them regularly, offer rides, visit them at home or take them out.

  • Give extra support to seniors who have recently lost a spouse. Older adults may be at highest risk for becoming socially isolated during the period after a spouse has passed away.

  • Encourage dining with others. The act of eating with others is inherently social. Dining with others is also likely to help promote better nutrition, which is also crucial for seniors.

  • Address incontinence issues. When these issues are addressed appropriately, seniors can have a better opportunity to recognize their social potential and live life without embarrassment or fear of going into public.

  • Encourage hearing and vision tests. Seniors with undiagnosed or untreated hearing or sight problems may avoid social situations because of difficulty communicating, moving about or embarrassment.

  • Make assistive devices — such as walkers, canes, braces, wheelchairs and other ambulation supports — available. These devices can help seniors compensate for age-related deficits and deficiencies that can impede social interaction.

“Acknowledging susceptibility to isolation and listening to older adults to understand what factors or life transitions may be contributing to their feelings of loneliness is crucial in finding helpful ways to offer support or intervene,” says Atterton. “And remember, loneliness and depression can go hand-in-hand, so finding someone to talk to or seeking professional care is important. You are not alone, help is available.”

If you are concerned about a loved one or are a senior and feel isolated or lonely, talk to your primary care provider and learn more about the Sharp Intensive Outpatient Program at Sharp Mesa Vista.

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