This article was originally published on Health247
Throughout every stage of our lives, we face changes. In our youth, we grow independent, find our voices and start to change the world. In early adulthood, many take a spouse and welcome children into their lives. And before very long, those children are themselves young adults. Our lives continue to change. Careers culminate. Grandchildren come. Relatives, friends and even spouses pass on.
Some of the changes we experience as we age are unexpected. Loneliness, for example. It’s not something we anticipate, and yet somewhere between a quarter and half of older Americans report feeling lonely. Nearly one-third of households in the U.S. – regardless of age – are comprised of just one person, making it the second-most common living arrangement and a factor in loneliness and social isolation.
Social isolation and loneliness don’t mean the same thing. When clinicians talk about loneliness, they mean the emotional distress that arises when a person doesn’t have a network of people with whom they can interact regularly. Social isolation is the condition of having a small, or absent, social network. Both can be difficult for people of all ages. But for the elderly, they can have dire health consequences.
Some studies suggest that loneliness is as strong a risk factor for mortality as smoking, obesity or a sedentary lifestyle! Researchers have found that lonely older adults are at increased risk of dying earlier, are more likely to experience a decline in mobility, and their cognitive abilities decline at a faster pace than the non-lonely.
Social isolation carries its own perils: higher mortality rates, perhaps because there is no one “watching over” the individual; greater vulnerability to scammers, elder abuse and exploitation; difficulty in getting access to services designed to help, such as healthcare, nutrition programs and senior centers; and poor health habits.
Loneliness and social isolation exacerbate the symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s and can increase disease progression.
Addressing the problem
Sometimes, we accept things as they are because “that’s how it is.” While it is true that we must accept that people will leave this life, and some friends and maybe even some relatives will relocate or move on, we don’t have to accept loneliness and isolation as inevitable.
Just as young people plan to fall in love, have children, and build careers, those in their middle and later years should think about and invest time in keeping their social networks strong and vibrant. Things to consider:
• Volunteering is one of the best ways to build your social network and stay engaged. Volunteer opportunities are virtually endless! Schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, nursing homes, social service agencies, groups like the American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity, museums, galleries, parks, recreation centers… the list goes on and on!
• Stay in touch with those you once worked with. Many employers have retiree groups linked to them, whether official or unofficial. It’s a great way to share and reminisce about “the good old days.”
• Go to school! The Commonwealth requires state-supported institution of higher learning to waive tuition and fees for any resident 65 or older. Meaning… it’s free. What a great way to learn something new and meet new people, too!
• Take an exercise class and take the time to really get to know someone in the class. Nurture that new relationship and help it grow.
• Become a regular at the Senior Center. Take advantage of the recreational activities they offer… and be sure to strike up a conversation or three!
Finally, consider whether your home is standing in the way of the beautiful, friend-filled, engaging life you deserve. Highgrove at Tates Creek is specially designed to meet the needs of area seniors, with independent living cottages, assisted living and the Veritas Memory Care program. At Highgrove at Tates Creek, you’ll find friendly, caring neighbors, helpful staff, and the activities and support seniors often need in their later years.
We would be pleased to share the Highgrove story with you personally, with a free tour and no-pressure conversation. Our goal is to help seniors live a beautiful life, whether it’s here at Highgrove, in the family home, or with caring family. Give us a call at (859) 245-0100.