Edith is 72 years old and a widow. Her husband, who passed away last year, was very outgoing, and the driver in the family, so she doesn’t get out of the house now the way she used to. Her kids live on the East Coast, and her best friend, Jeannie, recently moved to Arizona to be closer to family. Edith finds that it’s easier for her to order things online, even groceries, and have them delivered, so she has hardly left her house in the past month. In fact, she even stayed in her pyjamas for a week. She didn’t really see a point to getting dressed. It’s not like she had anywhere to go.
Social isolation is a troubling, serious, and surprisingly expensive problem facing us today. Humans are social creatures and meant to live in community, but as people age, they tend to grow less social due to various factors, such as retirement, health and mobility problems, and the death of family and friends. Feelings of loneliness are a struggle for many older adults, and according to the 2010 census, 28% of Americans over the age of 65 lived alone, a number that will only increase as people age.
Social isolation is more prevalent among men and those with lower incomes, and is associated with several types of health problems, including heart disease, depression, higher rates of infection and mortality, and premature cognitive decline. In fact, a 2010 study compared the effects of social isolation to the effects of smoking more than a dozen cigarettes per day. These negative health effects are not only dangerous, they are also expensive. Medicare spends an additional $6.7 billion each year on costs associated with social isolation, including care costs from skilled nursing facilities, which step in when there are no family and friends to offer help.
Older adults who are socially isolated, or those who experience loneliness, are more likely to make poor health choices in areas of diet, exercise, and smoking. Additionally, the National Center on Elder Abuse found that social isolation is associated with higher rates of elder abuse, though researchers aren’t certain whether the abuse precedes the isolation, or whether the isolation enables the abuse. Isolation, however, can prevent seniors from receiving the benefits and services they need to be healthy and independent.
How to Combat Social Isolation
One of the first things we can do to combat social isolation is to encourage seniors to have regular vision and hearing tests, and to report any symptoms of incontinence to their physicians. The embarrassment and limitations that result from hearing problems, vision problems, and incontinence can be significant factors in social isolation among seniors, but ones that may be easily solved.
Another primary factor in social isolation is limited transportation. Many seniors do not drive, so providing them alternative means of transportation—whether from family or friends, public transportation, cabs, or other ride services like Uber or Lyft—is key to enabling them to stay socially connected. Many communities even offer transportation services exclusively for seniors.
Once any underlying health and transportation issues have been addressed, it’s important to find ways to be more social. Of course, being social doesn’t come easily to everyone and some seniors will need to be intentional about being social. One of the simplest ways to fight social isolation is to share a meal with someone else, and to do so on a regular basis, whether it’s one-on-one with a good friend in a quiet setting or in a large group at a fun restaurant.
Seniors can also combat social isolation by maintaining a sense of purpose. As we grow older in a society where youth is celebrated, it’s important to hold onto our sense of purpose, or rediscover it if it’s been lost. There are many ways we can foster a sense of purpose, including through volunteering, mentoring, participation in community or religious activities, engaging in hobbies or other interests, taking classes, or in providing care for pets or other animals that need to be nurtured. The more social the activity, the less likely a senior will fall prey to social isolation. And seniors who are active also tend to be healthier.
The second half of life is an exciting time, and it’s important for seniors and their health that they stay active and social, as it can be easy to become isolated, like Edith. Edith’s story, however, ends on a positive note. She recognized that she was lonely and that her isolation was not healthy. She got help in arranging transportation and started participating in activities at her local senior center. She is now part of a group that plans regular outings, including an upcoming cruise, and feels great.