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Loneliness in the Elderly: How Social Isolation is Killing Seniors

Whether it’s from the passing of a spouse, little-to-no family members nearby, or lack of desire for human interaction, social isolation in seniors can take a great toll on their physical and mental health. This article will analyze and offer potential solutions to help address the potential problems associated with loneliness in older generations.

Understanding the Problems With the Social Isolation Epidemic

The number of health risks associated with social isolation may not be apparent at first since a majority of them are internal ailments — particularly so in senior citizens. Health risks often associated with social isolation include, but are not limited to:

  • A lack of a social support system;
  • Increased disposition to chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and obesity;
  • Higher blood pressure (often the result of hypervigilance);
  • Weakened immune system;
  • Mental illness, including isolation-induced depression (potentially resulting in an increased risk of suicide);
  • Cognitive decline, including dementia.

Statistics on Senior Social Isolation

According to the Health Resource and Services Administration, “loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” Other statistics on the loneliness epidemic reported by the HRSA include:

  • 28% of older adults in the U.S live alone;
  • Two out of five Americans report that they sometimes or always feel that their social relationships are not meaningful;
  • One in every five Americans feel socially isolated;
  • 43% of seniors feel lonely on a regular basis;
  • There is a 45% increased risk of mortality rate in seniors who report feeling lonely;
  • An estimated $6.7 billion in federal spending yearly is attributable to social isolation among older adults;
  • Poor social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase at risk of coronary heart disease;
  • 32% increase in strokes in those associated with loneliness.

Social Isolation Risk Factors

A few factors that can contribute to social isolation in seniors include:

  • Developing a fear of falling, decreasing the chances of them wanting to leave their home;
  • Living within a community that is not “aging-friendly”;
  • Lack of affordable and accessible housing, potentially forcing individuals into facility-based care;
  • Little to no access to necessary businesses such as grocery stores, pharmacies, activity centers, etc.;
  • No form of transportation allowing them to leave their homes;
  • Physical disabilities preventing them from being able to walk on their own;
  • Fear of having little to no public safety;
  • Feeling they’re too old to be doing anything outside of their home;
  • Losing touch with close family and friends;
  • Death of a spouse or loved one that was living with them;
  • Low income;
  • Psychological/cognitive disorders;
  • Little to no social network.

How to Recognize the Signs of Social Isolation

Understanding how to recognize the signs of social isolation can help ensure that preventative measures are taken before it is too late. Those who are often around older populations, such as family members or hospice certified nursing assistants (CNA’s) should be watchful for the following signs of social isolation.

Intense Boredom

Boredom is one of the many outcomes of social isolation. This can include the complete loss of interest in an activity that an individual was formerly engaged in, finding little to nothing to do around your living space, or losing interest in personal relationships with those once closest to you. Intense boredom could potentially lead to a lack of activity, which may help to decrease your overall mental and physical health.

Boredom can hinder lives by taking a toll on one’s psychological health. For example, an individual may be suffering from an immense fear of the world, resulting in them shutting down and sheltering themselves entirely from what they feel is the unknown.

Poor Hygiene

Seniors experiencing social isolation may exhibit poor hygiene due to the fact that they either aren’t able to take care of themselves or they’re not wanting to get up in fear of falling down. Poor hygiene can consist of foul body odors, dirty, greasy, or dry appearance of the skin, unkempt hair, long finger/toenails, dirty clothes, and more. The impact of poor hygiene is particularly harmful to seniors because it may lead to bacterial/fungal infections, hair/skin/nail infestations, rashes, and other more severe illnesses such as septicemia.

Poor Nutrition

Poor nutrition can be a common side effect in those who experience social isolation. This can partially be because they have no one to grocery shop for them, they aren’t able to shop for themselves, or the assisted living home and staff that cares for them isn’t providing them with the necessary nutrition they need to survive. This can increase the deterioration of their physical and mental health. Poor nutrition may lead to:

  • Depression;
  • Eating disorders;
  • Heart disease and stroke;
  • High blood pressure;
  • High cholesterol;
  • Obesity;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Some cancers;
  • Tooth decay;
  • Type 2 diabetes.

A Lack of Care for Home Environment

Elderly individuals who experience loneliness may demonstrate a lack of care for their home environment. Signs may include increased amounts of clutter, hoarding of old objects, dust build-up, insect infestations, etc. This can be extremely harmful to anyone, even more so, seniors. Having an excess amount of clutter can lead to more in-home accidents like slipping and falling, as well as increases the number of fire hazards.

If the clutter gets to the point of hoarding, it may even lead to health conditions like upper respiratory problems. In fact, hoarding is a common problem afflicting those who tend to live alone, more specifically, senior citizens.

How Can We Address Senior Social Isolation?

Understanding how to address the senior social isolation epidemic can help to ensure the safety of this population, and what preventative measures to take in the future to prevent these situations from occurring.

Keep Seniors Connected

It’s important to keep seniors connected whether it’s with their friends, family, others within the retirement community, and even healthcare professionals such as trained CNAs and home health care workers. By coming together they can increase the efforts that are being made to help ensure that the seniors are staying connected, healthy, and happy. Here are ways to keep seniors socially connected:

  • Explore local neighborhoods;
  • Take a trip to a museum;
  • Develop a new hobby;
  • Take part in a health fair;
  • Sign up for a course at a local activity center;
  • Volunteer to read at the local library;
  • Engage in arts and crafts;
  • Participate in bird watching;
  • Go to events like bingo, dances, talent shows, and more;
  • Volunteer for a charity.

Take Advantage of Resources to Stop Senior Social Isolation

Luckily there are many resources to help individuals combat senior social isolation, whether for your own use or to help someone you know — here are a few of them:

It may be difficult to adjust to living life alone, especially if you’re older. Luckily there are ways to cope and resources available to help ensure the safety and happiness of those who may find themselves feeling lonely.

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