Help for Senior Isolation & Loneliness
A growing number of American adults are living alone, and many of these are seniors. While not all are lonely, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), over a quarter of American seniors are living lonely lives in isolation, feeling forgotten and disconnected from others.
As we learn more about the physical and mental health effects of loneliness, the WHO and several national health organizations (such as the US National Institutes of Health) have prioritized research on how to reduce social isolation in elderly people across the globe.
Causes of Loneliness
Loneliness and social isolation are actually two different things. The former refers to painful feelings when social needs are not met, while the latter refers to having few social interactions. It is possible to be socially isolated but not lonely, and it is also possible to be in constant contact with people and still feel lonely. This complicates our efforts to understand and prevent loneliness in the elderly, but it is worth acknowledging that social isolation in older adults is strongly connected to loneliness, even if we do see some elderly individuals who prefer to be left alone.
Senior loneliness can grow from a variety of factors: having few friends and family members nearby, retirement from work and volunteering, dealing with cognitive decline or impairment, or managing chronic health conditions. Seniors with hearing loss can find it difficult to stay in conversations, which can be very isolating. The NIH reported findings that many Alzheimer’s patients feel that loved ones pull away after their diagnosis. Other seniors with cognitive impairment fear for their safety leaving home alone. Factor in mobility and transportation issues, and isolation can escalate quickly.
All of the above losses—of workplace and built-in communities, of frequent contact with family, of the ability to control one’s body and mind—are risk factors to spot potential loneliness in seniors. Big transitions and disruptive life events (such as losing a spouse or close friend, getting a new diagnosis, or moving homes) can trigger intense loneliness, as well.
Effects of Loneliness
The effects of social isolation and loneliness have sounded the alarm for healthcare professionals and policymakers, as they increase likelihood of mortality by 29% and 26%, respectively (via this 2021 report). The findings tell us that senior isolation and loneliness:
- Lead to poor sleep, which leads to poor overall health and higher risk of mortality
- Are likely to spur health-deteriorating habits, such as smoking, substance abuse, and poor dietary choices
- Increase stress response, inflammation, and pain in the body
- Aggravate cardiovascular disease and increase chances of stroke
- Advance cognitive decline and memory loss
- Are often self-perpetuating, leading isolated people to isolate themselves more
- Negatively impact mood and stimulate depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation
The US Surgeon General’s office reported in 2023 that the health impact of loneliness is equal to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. In the face of social isolation, elderly people suffer severe consequences to their quality of life.
Resources for Lonely Seniors
The attention to this serious health crisis is fairly new, so health and social support organizations are still figuring out how to reduce social isolation in a sustained, meaningful way. There are, however, actions that isolated seniors and their loved ones can begin to take right away.
Here are seven ideas, resources, and activities for seniors in isolation to prevent or alleviate loneliness. When considering an appropriate option for yourself or your loved one, take into account physical and cognitive capacities, health needs, and personal safety.
1. Home Care
This option is most useful for seniors who have some difficulty bathing, eating, or moving around the house (which fall under the Activities of Daily Living, or ADLs; see also IADLs). Home care is a flexible solution where a trained, compassionate non-medical professional visits on a regular schedule both to assist with ADLs and provide companionship. It is sometimes covered in part or in whole by insurance, the VA Aid and Attendance benefit, or worker’s compensation plans.
2. Standing Social Engagements
Standing engagements to play cards, go to religious services, or have breakfast are a wonderful way to integrate socializing into a weekly routine. Those with an existing social engagement can include their elderly parent, grandparent, or neighbor to bring much-needed color to their week. Family who live too far to make this feasible can also find a group local to their loved one (on social media or meet-up sites) and establish a routine of sending a ride-share, if needed. Many cities also have free shuttles on regular routes.
Practicing hobbies such as gardening, knitting, quilting, and painting encourage self-expression and reflection, as well as boost mood. If these can be done in a group setting (see idea #2 above), enjoying a hobby can also bring social connection; but even if done alone, it can alleviate feelings of loneliness.
Pets are not a good idea for all seniors, as they require care and supervision. Dogs, for example, need regular walks and behavior training. However, if the senior is able and willing to care for a pet, they can be highly therapeutic and alleviate loneliness.
One of the great benefits to our advances in technology has been our ability to connect easily in spite of physical barriers. Devices such SmartCompanion initiate voice and video calls, receive caregiver check-ins, and summon emergency services, all via voice command from anywhere in the home. AI tools can check in on seniors living alone, reminding them to take medication and asking them for updates that then get passed along to caregivers. They can also broadcast entertainment and news and even provide pleasant chit chat in the temporary absence of human company.
Seniors comfortable with email and text messaging can use these platforms to write to friends and family, keeping up with their lives and carrying on long conversations throughout the week.
Furthermore, seniors who are comfortable online can connect with new friends and common-interest groups via websites/apps designed specifically for their age group. This is a great option for seniors who are homebound, as they can interact with others without leaving home. (Note that it’s wise for a friend or family member to help with sign-up to these communities, to protect from scams.)
6. Call Services
Services like Care Call 4 You can also be engaged, where a trained, empathetic professional will call the senior on a regularly scheduled basis and catch up with them. This allows for friendly conversation as well as a wellness check, as sometimes seniors will share information (such as aches and pains, household repair needs, and negative feelings) that they don’t share with family for fear of burdening them. Such services can loop in family members when needed to catch issues before they snowball.
7. Counseling and Therapy
Seniors who are experiencing symptoms of depression due to loneliness can benefit from counseling with a trained and licensed provider. This professional can help the senior with one-on-one attention, patient listening, and encouragement to try new ways to connect with others.
Other options like art therapy or animal therapy (with dogs or horses, for example) can be very effective for soothing and lifting spirits.
Some seniors opt to live in group settings like assisted living facilities, but this is not accessible or desirable for everyone. Seniors who live alone can live full, happy lives shielded from isolation and loneliness with a few new ideas and the support of loved ones.
If your loved one needs home care, our VetAssist mission is to make home care easily and quickly accessible for those who qualify through the VA Pension with Aid and Attendance benefit. Veterans Home Care can help you determine whether you or your loved one will be eligible to receive the benefit, which can cover some or all of the cost of home care, and we make it easy to apply. Chat with us via our website, or call us at (888) 314-6075.