Social isolation is a serious concern for some senior citizens. It can come about in a myriad of ways, from the loss of a spouse or a fall that renders someone homebound. It can worsen as eyesight and hearing begin to fail. Any number of age-related changes can trigger it.
Regardless of how it starts, it’s important to recognize the signs so that you can help friends and loved ones that may be experiencing social isolation to overcome it early. It can be dangerous to both mental and physical health in the long term.
Social isolation has been associated with higher blood pressure, weaker immune system, and earlier onset of dementia.
Recognizing Social Isolation
According to AARP Foundation, social isolation occurs when people withdraw and become disconnected from family, friends, and community. Nearly 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 65 are experiencing it.
Signs of social isolation:
- Lack of interest in things that once made them happy
- Declining personal hygiene
- Poor nutrition habits
- Excessive clutter, disrepair, and/or hoarding in the home
The Gerontological Society of America, AARP, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and UnitedHealth Group joined forces to start a program called connect2affect. This online tool provides 12 questions to determine if a person is at high, medium, or low risk for isolation. If you have concerns about a friend or family member, this is a great resource to determine their risk factor and give you information on how to get help.
Helping The Isolated
Most socially-isolated individuals are reluctant to reach out and ask for help. They don’t want to be a burden on their family, friends, or neighbors.
It is important to have a gentle conversation with the at-risk person and determine what their interests are and how willing they are to change up their current lifestyle in order to break the isolation cycle.
Do some research and provide suggestions for local access to transportation, activities at local community centers, senior programs at the local YMCA, or volunteering opportunities.
Some libraries and community colleges also offer free or low-cost programs that are interesting for senior citizens.
There’s no doubt that our communities suffer when seniors become disengaged. Their involvement in community events, programs, and volunteering are much-needed to enrich and strengthen the communities in which they live.
Prevention Is Key
Fighting loneliness amongst seniors can be relatively simple. When both caregivers and family members unite to engage in meaningful activities with their senior members, loneliness is kept at bay. Here are some things you can start doing today to combat social isolation:
- Make meaningful visits often. Listen to what they have to say and fully engage in conversation. Put your phones/electronics away and truly give them your full attention.
- Take them out for lunch, dinner, church, a movie, or simply include them in as many family outings as possible.
- When visits aren’t possible, call often. For the tech-savvy senior, play them in live virtual games. Connect in some way as often as possible.
- Ask to participate in community activities with them. If they have cut themselves off from activities, encourage them to try something new and volunteer to accompany them to the first one.
- What unique skills does your loved one have? Ask them to teach you something they’ve perfected over the years.
It is much better to prevent social isolation or at least catch it early than deal with the consequences of someone severely depressed and isolated.
Know the Risks
There are numerous risks associated with senior social isolation. They include:
- Increased risk of mortality for those that live alone
- Negative impact on both physical and mental health
- Cognitive decline with increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
- Increased vulnerability to elder abuse
These are just a few of the ways that social isolation can impact senior citizens. It’s important to take action for your friends and loved ones. Visit them. Call them. Invite them out often. Speak up boldly when you suspect elder abuse. But mostly, just connect regularly and let them know you care.