In Elder Law News

Smiling senior man waves at tablet during video call with family.In recent years, researchers have been finding potential links between feelings of loneliness and negative health outcomes. Feeling lonely may put you at greater risk of premature death, serious health problems, and higher suicide rates.

For many, the COVID-19 pandemic made social isolation even more difficult to avoid. In 2023, the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy went so far as to issue a nationwide advisory on loneliness. In the report, he declared loneliness an epidemic and a major public health concern.

Loneliness is a feeling of desolation from lacking human connections and interactions, although it's not the same as being alone. Not everyone who lives alone feels lonely, and not all people who feel lonely live alone. People of any age may feel lonely, but the condition is especially common among seniors.

More Than Half of Seniors Feel Lonely

Most of us aspire to live a long and healthy life, enjoying time with our loved ones and in our community. Yet for many aging adults, long lives may also come with the grief of outliving spouses, friends, and sometimes one's children. In fact, more than half of Americans 65 and older say they feel lonely. Two-thirds of them feel that their family members have forgotten them.

Failing to maintain and make new, meaningful connections as older adults age can lead them toward a deep sense of loneliness. This can affect their mental and physical health, including puttin them at increased risk of heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and dementia. Dr. Murthy's report on loneliness states that lacking social connections may be comparable to smoking as many as 15 cigarettes a day.

Risk Factors for Loneliness Among Older Adults

Several risk factors can contribute to loneliness among people 65 and over. These risk factors include the following:

  • Grieving the loss of a loved one
  • Experiencing physical or mental difficulties caused by illness or disability, such as decreased vision or cognitive decline
  • Being an immigrant who has lost touch with loved ones from their home country
  • Belonging to an ethnic minority background
  • Living alone
  • Lacking the financial means to do various activities or visit others
  • Not having meaningful outlets for one's talents
  • Serving as a full-time caregiver
  • Struggling with incontinence
  • Lacking the ability to drive or take public transportation
  • Facing a communication barrier, such as speaking another language, having impaired hearing, or losing the ability to talk
  • Feeling depressed or anxious and lacking the motivation to join activities

Overcoming Loneliness with Meaningful Social Engagement

The first step to overcoming loneliness is acknowledging it and understanding the need to change some habits. If you are the one feeling socially disconnected, think about small ways you can foster a culture of connection in your life. Even the smallest positive change might put you on the right path toward more regularly reaching out to others.

If your spouse or loved one is feeling lonely, invite them to join you in some of these activities to get the ball rolling. Look for opportunities to talk, laugh, cry, and share:

  • Join a club, class, or religious institution to get to know people with similar values and interests. If you can’t drive, ridesharing, public transportation, and online groups may be among your options.
  • Invite one or two friends over to share a meal, watch a movie, or play cards
  • Try an exercise class geared toward senior citizens, or start a walking group with neighbors
  • Take a class on learning how to use social media and digital devices
  • Call or visit a family member or friend
  • Volunteer your time and talents at a school, animal shelter, or place of worship
  • Foster or adopt a pet (Many animal shelters also need volunteers to assist with social media efforts, scheduling veterinary appointments, and ordering food or medication.)
  • Get a job that you enjoy to interact more with others
  • Remember that everyone needs physical contact, too; don’t be shy about asking your loved ones for a hug

What About Technology?

Perhaps feeling connected does not depend solely on human companionship. From newly developed apps to robots, the tech world has been exploring how best to confront the epidemic of loneliness and isolation among older adults.

One robot, called ElliQ, is a device that fits on a tabletop and seeks to entertain and interact with its owner. Its designers have aimed to make ElliQ an empathic companion that could forge long-term bonds with users.

For seniors who are animal lovers, having a pet to care for may not always be possible. They may be interested in electronic companions, which include technologies such as Joy for All's robotic cats and pups. In one study, interactive robotic pets helped improve quality of life and overall mood among seniors with dementia.

Even young adults have tackled the issue of social isolation in older adults. For example, two high schoolers in California created Geri, an artificial intelligence app. Geri, available free via download, serves as a virtual companion for lonely seniors.

Other Possibilities

Seniors also may more easily find health care providers who offer mental health counseling or therapy and take Medicare. Starting in 2024, more than 400,000 of these types of professionals nationwide can now accept Medicare.

You might need to consider changing your living arrangements to make interactions easier. Even the most loving family members will not be able to visit as often as you would like if you live far away. Some seniors love residential programs with communal dining, planned outings, and frequent activities. Others prefer living with a family member or in a senior citizen community where everyone has their own space.

With a little research and an open mind, you might find that changing your home is the best thing you can do to meet new friends and stay engaged.

To read more about how to improve your well-being as you age, check out the following articles:

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