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.
“The health consequences of both social isolation and loneliness have been examined extensively,” says Norma Reggev, a licensed clinical social worker with Sharp Senior Health Centers. “Isolation is considered a risk factor in the development of illness and impairments and a strong link has been established between isolation and death.”
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
“Isolation can limit outings for routine medical care. Some seniors are not able to physically leave their residences in order to get their regular medical care and are likely to decline physically as a result,” says Reggev. “Some use only emergency rooms or urgent care centers for their care and are merely seen for crisis events, rather than addressing existing medical conditions on an ongoing basis.”
She states that 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
Reggev encourages older adults and their caregivers to take an introspective look at their individual situation to see if they are at risk for isolation. Reviewing who makes up their support group and how much interaction they have with others during the course of a day or week is important.
If you are concerned about a loved one or a neighbor, Reggev suggests the following ways you can help:
- Reach out to those 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 and 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 or embarrassment.
- Make assistive devices available. Assistive devices such as walkers, canes, braces, wheelchairs and other ambulation supports help seniors to compensate for age-related deficits and deficiencies that can impede social interaction.
“My direct interactions with my elderly patients at the Sharp Senior Health Center have shown that those seniors who have little interaction with others are more likely to demonstrate an attitude of hopelessness and apathy,” says Reggev. “To put it simply, their will to live and desire to take better care of themselves is greater when human beings feel connected to others.”
If you are concerned about a loved one or are a senior and feel isolated or lonely, talk to your primary care provider or learn more about Sharp Senior Health Centers, Sharp Senior Resource Centers, health screenings, upcoming classes and additional senior services.