As people age, they often find themselves alone more. This could be due to the loss of a spouse, retirement, separation from family and friends, loss of mobility or having to give up driving. As a result, seniors are more susceptible to social isolation and loneliness, both of which have been linked to serious health problems such as functional and cognitive decline, dementia, depression, heart disease and even an increased risk of death.
Living alone, however, doesn’t necessarily mean someone is lonely, and conversely, people who don’t live alone may feel lonely. In one study of adults aged 60 and over across the United States, 43% said they felt lonely but only 18% lived alone. The study also found that people who identified themselves as lonely were at a 59% greater risk of functional decline and a 45% greater risk of death over a 6-year time period.
Humans are social beings and usually thrive when they have social connections. Research has found that people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others and have a supportive social network tend to live longer, maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function.
The difference between loneliness and social isolation
Research has found that social isolation and loneliness are different but related. Social isolation is the physical separation from other people – you don’t have enough people to interact with. Loneliness is a subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated from others – you may have family and friends nearby but still experience feelings of loneliness. It’s important to note that loneliness is not the same as depression.
Negative effects of social isolation
Socially isolated seniors are more at risk of negative health behaviours including drinking, smoking, being sedentary and not eating well. They have a higher chance of falling and a greater risk of hospitalization. Studies have shown that social isolation is also a predictor of mortality from heart disease and stroke; affects the psychological and cognitive health of seniors; and, is associated with higher levels of depression and suicide.
Because social isolation increases the risk of developing mental health issues, it impacts a person’s self-esteem and confidence. This in turn limits their social connections and inhibits them from seeking help, which perpetuates the isolation.
Social isolation, with or without loneliness, can have as large effect on mortality risk as smoking, obesity, sedentary lifestyle and high blood pressure.
The health risks of loneliness
Loneliness has been independently linked with functional decline and an increased rate of death. Research has found that loneliness is associated with ill health to a greater degree than just social isolation.
According to Dr. Steve Cole, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles: “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
Having a sense of mission and purpose in life, however, is linked to healthier immune cells.
Risk factors for social isolation and loneliness
A variety of risk factors increase the possibility of seniors becoming socially isolated and lonely, such as:
- living alone
- being age 80 or older
- a compromised health status, including multiple chronic health problems
- having no children or contact with family
- lack of access to transportation
- having a low income
- changing family structures, younger people migrating for work and leaving seniors behind, and location of residence (e.g. urban, rural and remote)
- death of a spouse
- loss of a driver’s license
A survey by the National Seniors Council of Canada also learned that additional risk factors identified by seniors and stakeholders include:
- lack of awareness of or access to community services and programs
- fear, stigma or ageist attitudes that prevent seniors from accessing community services/programs or being socially active in their community
- lack of affordable and suitable housing and care options to meet the varied needs of older adults
- loss of sense of community
- lifelong health issues including disabilities
- late onset or age-related disabling conditions such as incontinence or fear of falling when going to and from venues
- challenges relating to technology – including access and costs, literacy and comfort with technologies including telephone systems (press “1” for service, etc.), computers, social media, as well as others (e.g. parking meters)
Specific groups of seniors were also identified as being at greater risk of social isolation, such as:
- seniors with physical and mental health issues (including older adults with Alzheimer’s disease or other related dementia, or multiple chronic illnesses)
- seniors who are caregivers
- Aboriginal seniors
- seniors who are newcomers to Canada or immigrant seniors (language proficiency issues, separation from family, financial dependence on children, low levels of inter-ethnic contacts, discrimination)
- lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered seniors
How to protect seniors from the negative effects of isolation and loneliness
Family members, friends and neighbours as well as health care and social service professionals can help reduce social isolation by identifying isolated older adults. They can also help break the cycle of loneliness by speaking with seniors to learn why they might be feeling lonely.
Here are some ways to help counter the effects of social isolation and loneliness:
An active, healthy lifestyle
Poor health is often a cause of social isolation. That’s why it’s so important for seniors to maintain a healthy lifestyle through:
- physical activity
- a balanced diet
- a healthy body weight
- moderate drinking
- not smoking
- good sleeping habits
Access to information, services and programs for seniors
The Government of Canada offers a phone-line and a website for information on government and community-based health and social services for seniors across the country.
- 211 is a help line to connect people to relevant information and services.
- seniors.gc.ca is a central resource for seniors, their families and caregivers on federal, provincial, territorial and some municipal government benefits and services, including information on finances, housing, health and wellness.
Community support services
As seniors stay in their own homes longer, they may need home care services such as meals, friendly visits, housekeeping, health care, etc. Home care professionals can help people age in place as well as identify socially isolated seniors with depression, mental health issues and cognitive decline who should be referred for additional services.
Access to transportation
Seniors who are unable to drive or take public transit require alternative, accessible methods of transportation to access their communities. Look for community organizations that offer rides, set up an account with a taxi or ride-sharing service, or ask family and friends to help out.
Classes and activities
Look for programs and classes offered to seniors at community centres and libraries so they can engage in a variety of activities, meet new people and develop friendships.
Volunteering is a great way for seniors to get involved in their communities and gain a sense of purpose.
Use of technology
In addition to connecting with people in person, seniors can use the internet and social media to communicate with others. Video and audio calls on Skype and Facetime can help seniors stay in touch with family and friends. Seniors can also connect with people in online chat groups and support groups.