“Loneliness,” wrote author Thomas Wolfe, “is and always has been the … inevitable experience of every man.” It’s true that, the longer we live, the more likely it is we’ll experience feelings of loneliness and isolation. Loved ones die, or move away; health issues crop up that limit our seniors’ mobility and access to friends and neighbors. But more and more research is sounding the alarm regarding loneliness in elderly populations. It’s no longer looked at as just something to be expected in old age; loneliness is increasingly being recognized by doctors as a potential contributor to serious health issues.
First, some sobering facts about loneliness and seniors:
- 18% of people 65+ live alone, with 43% reporting they feel lonely on a regular basis
- 6 million Americans 65+ have a disability that prevents them from leaving their homes independently
- More people live alone today than in any time in modern recorded history
- Elderly women are twice as likely to live alone than men
- 1 in 7 people with Alzheimer’s live alone
- LGBT seniors are twice as likely to live alone
With regard to wellbeing, research makes clear how important it is to avoid assumptions when assessing our elderly parents and loved ones. University of San Francisco’s Carla Perissinotto points out that feelings of loneliness aren’t exclusive to those seniors actually living by themselves, and are often expressed within the context of living with a spouse or family members. “It’s (also) possible for seniors to live alone and not feel lonely,” she states, describing loneliness as the “discrepancy between one’s desired relationships and one’s actual relationships.” Assumptions on either side can therefore be misleading, and can potentially cause us to miss important behavioral cues.
So what potentially serious health issues are linked to seniors feeling isolated? Studies have long indicated that elderly people who feel lonely are at greater overall risk for premature cognitive decline and physical deterioration. A recent UCF study in particular came to some startling conclusions. Focusing on subjects 60 and older who expressed loneliness, it assessed four specific functional abilities – upper extremity strength; walking; climbing stairs; and the ability to perform basic activities of daily living, such as dressing or bathing. Among that population, they recorded a 59% greater instance of physical decline, attributing an equal percentage to cognitive function. The study also reported a 45% increase in the occurrence of premature death in that same population, citing possible connections to diabetes complications, heart disease, and the acceleration of other potentially fatal conditions.
If you’re concerned about an elderly person in your family or community, there are many resources out there to help address not only the issue of loneliness, but also more extreme feelings of isolation and depression. The AARP hosts connect2affect.org, a fantastic site that helps seniors self-assess, share their story, connect with neighbors, and find local programs and support groups. The Institute on Aging hosts a 24 hour Friendship Line, for seniors 60 and older who may be struggling with loneliness, isolation, or even suicidal thoughts. And the British Campaign to End Loneliness, while based in the UK, is a wonderful online resource for ideas and strategies.