Meeting up with a neighbor for a stroll around the block and catching up with friends over a cup of coffee is likely a normal part of your weekly routine. Having a support network of friends and peers makes us feel less lonely and gives us access to a group of people who can offer an encouraging word or helpful hand.
But what happens when our social circle begins to shrink?
For many older adults, isolation and feelings of loneliness increase as they age. While feeling lonely and isolated certainly can take a toll on mental health, research is showing us that there are other consequences from isolation to contend with.
Fortunately, there are ways to combat isolation, but the first steps are to recognize the dangers of isolation, as well as the signs.
Why are seniors vulnerable to isolation?
Anyone can begin to feel lonely or isolated, especially during the past few years as we’ve all struggled through the COVID-19 pandemic. However, healthy socialization decreases naturally as we age due to shrinking social circles and opportunities.
For example, retirement can mean less time with coworkers. Children growing up and moving out of the house can mean less time with family. If driving is no longer safe, that means it will take more time to coordinate transportation to and from social events.
Add in chronic pain or other complex medical conditions, including dementia, and it is no wonder so many older adults feel lonely. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that nearly one-fourth of older adults over the age of 65 are considered to be isolated and nearly one-third of adults over the age of 45 feel lonely.
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What are the dangers of isolation?
For many years, the key to healthy aging was thought to be wrapped up in exercise and eating well. Of course, these two lifestyle choices are an excellent start to staying healthy for as long as possible, but science has shown there’s more to it.
Research over the past ten years has consistently demonstrated a direct correlation between socialization and health, especially as we age. The National Institute on Aging reports that social isolation and feelings of loneliness can lead to mental health complications ranging from depression to anxiety. In addition, decreased socialization can lead to decreased immune response, as well as higher risk of heart disease, obesity, and high blood pressure.
Isolation can affect cognitive health as well. Isolated seniors experience more rapid cognitive decline, which can lead to safety concerns for those living at home alone.
How do I identify the signs of isolation?
It can be difficult to determine if your older loved one is isolated or lonely, for a few different reasons.
First, you might assume your loved one is saying they are lonely every time you visit as a guilt trip to get you to visit more. This can make it hard to take them at their word, creating more difficulty in determining whether they are actually lonely or not. Next, your loved one might not say they are lonely at all and indicate everything is fine, when in fact they are socially isolated. If you don’t know what is happening in your loved one’s social calendar, you might miss out on the opportunity to follow up with certain questions to determine how they are really doing.
Some signs of isolation and loneliness are more obvious than others, but one of the key things to look for is change. Stay tuned in by knowing the difference between the general signs of aging and specific signs of isolation and loneliness. Here are a few specific signs to look for that could point to potential isolation or feelings of loneliness.
Fewer Gatherings with Friends
While family visits and connections are certainly important, research tells us that the real positive health impacts happen when the person is connected to peers. You can determine if your loved one is connecting with their friends and peers by asking what they did that day and who they saw. If you notice your loved one is getting together with peers fewer than twice per week, it could point to isolation.
Less Driving Time
If your loved one no longer drives, they are already at an increased risk for loneliness and isolation. Be sure they have access to local transportation services, and ask if they are using that resource regularly.
Skipping Out on Family Events
If your loved one is finding excuses to skip family gatherings, the chances are high they are doing the same with their friends. Older adults choose to avoid social settings for a variety of reasons including increased pain, cognitive decline, or even hearing challenges. If your loved one is suddenly skipping events, it is time to investigate why.
Discover the senior living solution for improved senior health.
Connection is crucial to senior health. Although maintaining friendships can become more challenging as we age, the effort to make new friends and revisit old friends pays off when it comes to health benefits.
For many adults, healthy socialization is convenient and fun in a senior living community.
Senior living communities offer more than just a maintenance-free lifestyle and luxury amenities. Most importantly, they offer the opportunity to meet new friends and connect with new neighbors. Residents can share a meal or experience a new event with their peers, which makes starting a new friendship more convenient and less stressful.
The right senior living community aims to naturally cultivate relationships between residents and team members. An exceptional community will feature:
Plenty of shared community spaces that are ideal for chatting with a new friend
Dining experiences that are social in nature
A life enrichment calendar packed with opportunities to try something new and learn alongside friends
Exceptional senior living communities want residents to keep being their unique selves, encouraging them to keep up with their unique hobbies, and enrich the lives of other residents. And if your loved one has a beloved pet, the best communities LOVE PETS, TOO.
Ready to learn more about how friendships and meaningful peer relationships can positively impact the life of your loved one? Learn more in our free resource, The Power of Connection for Senior Health.