As we get older, it becomes more important than ever to stay connected. Everyone needs social interactions to survive and thrive. But as people age, they often find themselves spending more time alone. Being alone may leave older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which can affect their health and well-being. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks for health problems such as heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Older adults are at higher risk due to changes in health and social connections that often come with growing older, changes in hearing, vision, and memory loss, disability, trouble getting around, and/or the loss of family and friends.
Much of what we know about the causes and effects of social isolation and loneliness comes from the groundbreaking research of the late John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., former director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. Dr. Cacioppo’s research found that being alone and loneliness are different but related. Social isolation is the physical separation from other people, while loneliness is the distressed feeling of being alone or separated. It’s possible to feel lonely while among other people, and you can be alone yet not feel lonely.
Although there is more to learn, the understanding of the mechanisms of loneliness and its treatment has increased dramatically. Research has found that loneliness automatically triggers a set of related behavioral and biological processes that contribute to the association between loneliness and premature death in people of all ages. Losing a sense of connection and community changes a person’s perception of the world. People who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses, which makes them more vulnerable to some infectious diseases.
A senior may be at greater risk for social isolation if they:
- Live alone
- Can’t leave home
- Had a major loss or life change, such as the death of a spouse or partner, or retirement
- Struggle with money
- Are a caregiver
- Have psychological or cognitive challenges, or depression
- Have limited social support
- Have trouble hearing
- Live in a rural, unsafe, and/or hard-to-reach neighborhood
- Have language barriers where they live
- Experience age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity discrimination
- Are not meaningfully engaged in activities or are feeling a lack of purpose
Social interaction, on the other hand, has actually been linked with lower inflammatory factors associated with several age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and some forms of cancer. National Institute on Aging (NIA)-supported research by Dr. Cole and others shows that having a sense of mission and purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells. People who engage in meaningful, productive activities they enjoy with others feel a sense of purpose and tend to live longer. Whether you’re a senior or you have loved ones in their older years, you can find ways to foster social interaction that in turn boosts wellness.
Below are some ideas from the NIA to help maintain connections for yourself or someone you know who may be at risk for isolation:
- Find an activity that you enjoy, restart an old hobby, or take a class to learn something new. You might have fun and meet people with similar interests.
- Schedule time each day to stay in touch with family, friends, and neighbors whether it’s in person, by email, via social media, or by voice call or text. Talk with people you trust and share your feelings. Suggest an activity to help nurture and strengthen existing relationships. Sending letters or cards is another good way to maintain friendships.
- Use communication technologies such as texting, email, video chat, or social media to help keep you engaged and connected. If you’re not tech-savvy, sign up for an online or in-person class at your local public library or community center to help you learn how to use email or social media.
- Companionship doesn’t always have to come in human form. Furry four-legged friends offer connections, too. Although puppies and kittens can be a lot of work, you can adopt an older dog or cat who is already housebroken from a shelter. Plus, taking a pooch for daily walks helps keep you active. If a senior in your life is interested in a pet, help research appropriate breeds for their living situation and how to go about the adoption process.
- Stay physically active and include group exercise, such as joining a walking club or working out with a friend. Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of activity a week that elevates the heart rate.
- Introduce yourself to your neighbors.
- Find a faith-based organization where you can deepen your spirituality and engage with others in activities and events.
- Check out resources and programs at your local social service agencies, community and senior centers, and public libraries.
- Join a cause and get involved in your community.
If you or a loved one has dementia and lives alone, family members, friends, or other caregivers may be able to help in different ways.
- Identify a person you trust, such as a neighbor, who can visit regularly in-person or via a video call and act as an emergency contact.
- Learn about home- and community-based support and services from social service agencies, local nonprofits, and Area Agencies on Aging.
- Stay connected with family and friends through technology. If you’re not tech-savvy, ask for help to learn.
- Talk with others who share common interests. Try a support group online or in person. Maybe your community has a memory café you can visit — a safe place to enjoy activities and socialize for people living with memory loss and their families and caregivers.
Need help with social isolation or feeling lonely? The Eldercare Locator connects the public to services for older adults and their families. This resource seeks to provide assistance for a wide range of issues affecting older Americans, including social isolation and loneliness. Call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 or visit https://eldercare.acl.gov/ to get connected.
For additional resources on older adults and social isolation and loneliness visit, Expand Your Circles: Prevent Isolation and Loneliness As You Age (PDF, 4.75M).