At 70, Burt had been slowly losing his hearing for years. While it was noticeable to his wife Clara and their three children, Burt didn’t seem too bothered by the loss. He and Clara had been together for over 45 years, immersed in a comfortable routine that didn’t require verbal communication to feel heard. But when Clara died unexpectedly of a stroke, Burt found himself at a total loss. Without his wife by his side, he felt cut off from the world—the combination of grief, loneliness, and hearing issues left Burt incredibly isolated.
Burt’s kids initially assumed their dad’s social isolation was part of the grieving process—something they were all experiencing.. After a year went by and things began to get worse, they realized they needed to take action. The three of them started taking turns visiting Burt much more frequently for meals and quality time. During these visits, Burt would play for hours with his grandkids, something that brought him great joy. His daughter started accompanying him to a volunteer job at an animal shelter and soon after they got him a small dog to keep him company at home. While nothing would ever fill the void that Clara left, Burt was happy for the time he had to spend with his family, caring people, and pets — his schedule was now packed with fun activities that he looked forward to each day.
Contributing Factors to Senior Isolation
Sadly, many older adults are very susceptible to social isolation, especially those living alone. In 2010, nearly 30 percent of older adults over 65 years old were aging in place alone, and that number has since increased. Moreover, there are other variables that contribute to senior isolation:
- Recently widowed
- Living in an isolated location
- Over 80 years old
- Disabilities related to hearing, vision, speech, mobility or incontinence
- Mental illness such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression or anxiety
- Part of a community that is often subjected to prejudice or discrimination
Consequences of Senior Isolation
Older adults who fall into one or more of the groups listed above are especially prone to senior isolation. The effects of isolation can be quite serious, and can affect your aging loved one’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being in the following ways:
- Elder abuse
Socially isolated older adults are often more vulnerable to elder abuse. At the same time, elder abuse can also happen when your loved one lives with another person but is, in all other respects, still very isolated due to disabilities or illness. Living together loneliness can be very painful.
- Health problems
The impact of isolation on your loved one’s health is wide-ranging, including high blood pressure and a higher chance of long-term illnesses. According to a PNAS study, older adults suffering from social isolation are also “at increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality.”
The rate of depression increases with senior isolation, and it’s a cycle that feeds itself. Older adults who suffer from isolation tend to think negatively about the future, engage in bad habits and coping strategies, and have more suicidal thoughts.
3 Ways to Help Loved Ones with Senior Isolation
There are many ways you can help your aging loved one emerge from social isolation:
1. Re-engage in community-based activities
First, make sure they’re able to get around the city easily. Help them access public transportation like BART, private taxis, or disability car services. You can also arrange a driving schedule with family members or if the person has the financial resources, hire a home aid to assist. Explore fun things to do in San Francisco together: this could be joining a senior discussion group, or helping them find a new hobby in the city. In addition, you can encourage your loved one to get involved in senior volunteer work, lifelong learning programs, or participate in local exercise groups like martial arts or water sports. Setting up a few fun social activities will give them structure and something to look forward to.
2. Increase quality time with family
Spending time with family (or, likewise, close friends) can make all the difference when your aging loved one is suffering from isolation, especially after the loss of a spouse—family members have the power to help their loved grieve their loss as they stay connected with family and friends. Connections bind us to life. . Spend time cooking or eating meals as a family, or out at restaurants for a treat. Bring along any grandkids. They do not have to “try to lift your loved one’s spirits,” they simply need to be themselves, which is a reminder that life goes no. Similarly, pets are great mood-boosters, and also known to reduce feelings of isolation. Whether your family likes going to church, playing cards, or walking in the park, schedule a regular family activity for everyone to enjoy.
3. Treat mental and physical health issues
Health problems can cause isolation, as well as make it worse—so it’s critical to get both issues under control. Many older adults have physical disabilities that might be causing isolation, but could easily be improved with the help of a simple device like a hearing aid, walker, glasses, or other assistive device. Remember that many people resist speaking openly about their needs because they do not wish to be perceived as needy or old. Older adults who need additional help with mobility might benefit from having a home aid to provide companionship or transportation. For older adults suffering from mental illness, depression, or anxiety, talking with a professional therapist or the compassionate volunteers at IOA’s Friendship Line can be extremely helpful.
Ultimately, senior isolation is just as serious as any physical illness—and it can have numerous adverse effects on your aging loved one’s quality of life. Thankfully, there are many simple steps caregivers and family members can take to help their loved one reengage with their family and community—and continue to live a life of purpose and fulfillment. . And because socialization has so many health benefits, your loved one’s renewed energy will hopefully continue to further fuel their engagement. Whether it’s joining a local social program, exercising with a group, or talking with a therapist, there are ways to help your aging loved one reconnect with life.
If you’re unsure how to offer your aging loved one the best support, Institute on Aging is here to help with a range of resources and services. Connect with us today to learn more.