Too often we see families come to our assisted living home because they worry about their elderly parent. Mom or Dad has been living on their own ever since their spouse passed away. At first things were fine. Sure there was some grieving, which was understandable. Then over time the health of the parent started to go downhill. They seemed so healthy when their spouse was alive. Yet it seemed like the loneliness started to take its toll.
Humans are communal creatures. They need to be around others to thrive. Unfortunately it takes energy to go out and be with people. Especially if you’re living alone. And elderly.
In addition to the energy thing, elderly people:
- Can be self-conscious about their appearance
- Don’t want to bother people
- Lose many of their friends who pass away
- Feel that the world has passed them by
- May have hearing of vision problems which make it hard to communicate
- Are not used to living without their spouse
Loneliness and Physical Health
Scientists are now finding that loneliness can be a much larger mortality risk than once thought. A meta-analysis (an analysis of a whole lot of studies) across 148 other studies and over 300,000 socially isolated individuals did not have good news:
“Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity”
—House, Landis, and Umberson; Science 1988
Seems quite amazing. Being isolated and lonely could be worse than some of the worst health activities we hear about. Yet we never hear about any kind of treatment involving spending more time with friends and family. In fact, during the Coronavirus epidemic, we practically mandated that social isolation and loneliness became the norm for most seniors.
Especially seniors in assisted living and memory care facilities. What is amazing is that loneliness can even reduce the strength of the immune system in seniors. Then they become more susceptible to the virus they are trying to protect against.
The Mechanisms of the Loneliness Decline
Social Isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression. All three of those factors can lead to physiological problems:
- Spending time with people who have healthy habits generally leads to individuals adopting those healthy habits. That doesn’t happen if someone is socially isolated
- Depression can cause your blood platelets to aggregate because your serotonin is not functioning well. Serotonin helps control your mood. The platelet aggregation problem can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke
- Isolation and loneliness are associated with increased sympathetic nervous system activity, increased inflammation, and decreased sleep, all of which can accelerate brain and cardiovascular aging (Cacioppo, et al., 2011)
What Can Be Done about Loneliness?
The obvious thing to do is to spend more time with Grandma. The less obvious thing is that family caregivers can feel just as much loneliness and isolation as their elderly parent. When family members have to care for a loved one, it may take all their time. Then the caregiver experiences social isolation. We see a lot of families come to our assisted living homes because a family member is burned out from caregiving.
Here are some ideas on how to combat loneliness in the elderly. Researchers found the best way to avoid social isolation is face-to-face meetings. If you can’t do that, virtual meetings or phone calls are better than nothing. In fact, some frail elderly people may prefer a phone call from time to time instead of too many visits:
- Set time aside on a regular basis to visit your elderly relative with several family members
- Become involved in a church group
- Find a pet cat or dog for the elderly person
- Show them how to work a computer, cell phone or tablet to video chat
- In-home visits for medical people actually help more than taking the patients to the doctor
- Look for volunteer opportunities, or
- Play! See video below