Did you know that one-quarter of seniors (adults aged 65 and older) report feeling socially isolated and lonely? Data also shows that social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50 percent. These statistics indicate that senior social isolation needs to be perceived as a serious public health risk.
The statistics above may be worrying, but the good news is that there is a lot we can do to reduce social isolation and loneliness among seniors. These efforts start with first understanding what senior isolation is, and then involves learning how it differs from loneliness, what research concludes about its impact, and how we can assist in reducing social isolation among this group.
To get an idea of how serious the issue of social isolation among older adults is, let’s start by looking at some statistics:
Social isolation increases the risk of premature death.
The risk of heart disease increases by 29 percent among seniors that experience social isolation.
Socially isolated seniors are 32 percent more likely to experience a stroke.
The proportion of people above the age of 50 who indicated they often or sometimes feel isolated grew from 27 percent in 2018 to 56 percent at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
A 2021 study concluded that 29.5 percent of adults in the U.S. were considered to be at a high level of loneliness between April and May 2020, with loneliness being more prevalent among those who had been unmarried, unemployed, and who were living alone at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Is Senior Isolation?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines social isolation as “a lack of social connections.” Isolation is usually characterized by an individual living alone, having no contact with family, hardly leaving their home or visiting anyone, and having little or no contact with neighbors.
A document created by the Government of Canada with insights on the social isolation of seniors notes that social isolation includes the lack of social contacts and involves having few social roles. The same document adds that social isolation could also include “the absence of mutually rewarding relationships.”
Even though they are often perceived as the same thing, isolation and loneliness are two different concepts. The CDC defines loneliness as “the feeling of being alone, regardless of the amount of social contact.” The agency adds, “Social isolation can lead to loneliness in some people, while others can feel lonely without being socially isolated.”
What Is Driving Senior Isolation?
To understand social isolation, we need to identify the factors leading to it. MedicareAdvantage.com, a company that provides tools to help users identify medical care coverage options, provides a list of factors that could lead to social isolation:
Many seniors are left alone after their adult children start living independently and family members become more dispersed, resulting in problems with maintaining contact.
As adults grow older and their spouses and friends start to pass away, their inner circle naturally shrinks.
When people grow older, their ability to keep up with their hobbies’ mental and physical requirements diminishes, thus hindering them from remaining socially engaged with others.
As they stop driving for safety reasons, seniors become less mobile, which leads to a more stationary lifestyle and social isolation.
While retirement facilities can alleviate the challenge of social isolation, not everybody can afford the cost of living in one of these establishments.
As the world becomes a global village, many seniors live in foreign countries where language and cultural barriers could make it challenging to engage with others.
The points above show that social isolation is a multifaceted concept resulting from numerous factors directly related to aging.
Higher Risks Among Immigrant and LGBTQ+ Communities
The CDC cites a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), which concluded that certain groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender populations, as well as victims of elder abuse, and minorities are at a higher risk of loneliness and social isolation.
According to NASEM, “gay, lesbian, and bisexual populations tend to have more loneliness than their heterosexual peers because of stigma, discrimination, and barriers to care.” On the other hand, immigrants may have limited social ties because of existing structural issues, like language barriers.
People generally tend to struggle with establishing relationships when there are apparent differences between themselves and other members of the communities in which they live.
It’s Official: Isolation Is Bad for Seniors
We all intuitively know that isolation is bad for us—especially for seniors—but what do scientific studies say about this issue? Generally, studies paint a bleak picture for isolated seniors, specifically indicating that isolated individuals have a higher risk of adverse effects such as emotional distress and poor health.
Social Isolation Impacts Physical And Mental Health
Generally, when a person is socially isolated, it is not easy for those that care about that individual to see the signs of any health issues. Therefore, the effect of health issues on socially isolated seniors may ultimately lead to death even though acting early might have saved the affected individual’s life.
Some of the negative health outcomes identified by Louise Hawkley and John Capitanio, who conducted a study on social isolation fitness and health outcomes, include “depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, unfavorable cardiovascular function, impaired immunity, altered hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical activity, a pro-inflammatory gene expression profile, and earlier mortality.”
The CDC reports that “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.” But is this assumption supported by credible science?
A study by Andrew Steptoe and colleagues published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) attempts to answer this question. The researchers report that they “found that mortality was higher among more socially isolated and more lonely participants.”
Effect Of Social Isolation On Cognition
We have already noted that isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50 percent. John Cacioppo and Louise Hawkley conducted research focusing on perceived social isolation and cognition.
After analyzing several studies, Cacioppo and Hawkley conclude that “perceived social isolation … is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, more negativity, and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition …, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion.”
Impact of COVID-19 on Senior Isolation Trends
It is generally accepted that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated isolation, particularly among seniors, as the pandemic disproportionately affected this group. For instance, the COVID-19 fatality rate for individuals aged 80 and above is five times higher than the global average.
Social isolation and loneliness during COVID-19 are exacerbated because many countries have imposed lockdowns and social distancing measures. Even those who may not have been socially isolated before the pandemic suddenly find themselves alone, sometimes because a spouse has passed away.
Ways to Reduce Senior Social Isolation
To reduce social isolation, the individual at risk of isolation can do some simple yet very helpful things. For example, something as easy as getting outside of the house so that people passing by have an opportunity to talk to you can go a long way.
Grab A Chance To Smile
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service suggests that seniors should “Grab every chance to smile at others or begin a conversation” in places like the grocery store or when waiting to see the doctor. The NHS also advises those who are shy and unsure of what to say to simply ask the people they are attempting to converse with about themselves.
If there is one thing that COVID-19 accelerated, it is the development of communication technologies. For example, technologies like Zoom have aided communication for millions of people working from home. These tools can also connect seniors with friends and family members across the world.
In April 2020, Florida State University’s Institute for Successful Longevity announced that it had launched an initiative to help seniors continue learning and connect with friends and family.
Of launching the initiative, Neil Charness, who is director of the institute, said, “Research studies suggest that about a quarter of the U.S. older adult population suffers from loneliness, and we are concerned that this could become more widespread under the social distancing required to prevent [the] spread of the COVID-19 virus.”
Seniors may also avoid social interaction because they might struggle to hear what others are saying. This is where technological advances like utilizing the best hearing aids on the market come into play.
Suppose your senior loved ones live on their own. In that case, you may also consider getting them outfitted with a medical alert system to ensure that someone is alerted when the individual living alone experiences an emergency and needs help.
Explore Senior Living
The restrictions imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 have taught us that it is not always possible to provide companionship to our loved ones despite our best efforts. In such situations, considering senior living options could be the way to go. However, it is vital to ensure that the senior involved is part of the decision-making process and is assisted in selecting a home that best fits their needs and desires.
Aging In Place empowers seniors and their loved ones to find the best options for staying in their homes and communities.