Larry was devastated when he lost his wife, Edna. He’d spent almost every day with her for 67 years, and when she was gone he felt as though he’d lost part of himself. Larry had always been a quiet man—he wasn’t one to share his feelings or speak his mind, but over the years he had learned to open up to Edna. Without her, he fell silent and felt isolated from the rest of the world.
While Larry still had his two sons and his grandkids around, his relationship with them had changed greatly since Edna’s passing. She had always been the one to invite them over to the house, chat with them on the phone, and plan family gatherings. Now, neither Larry nor his sons really felt like getting together much. Their shared grief seemed to keep them apart.
Thankfully, Larry wasn’t entirely alone after the passing of Edna. While he didn’t have friends or family to turn to, his neighbor gave him the number for the Friendship Line, a service that provides phone support for seniors who are dealing with a variety of problems—from struggling with loneliness to experiencing suicidal thoughts. While he was at first hesitant to call the line, he now couldn’t imagine his life without it.
The Consequences of Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Aging Adults
Like Larry, there are many aging adults who are facing social isolation or moving through the process of grief and don’t have anyone to talk to about their struggles. In fact, loss of a spouse is one of the most significant risk factors for loneliness and isolation. There are, however, many other reasons that an aging adult may find themselves feeling disconnected from the world and it is estimated that 32% of adults between the ages of 60 and 69, and 25% of adults over 70 experience loneliness.
Unfortunately, loneliness, isolation, and disconnectedness have been shown to have negative effects on both physical and mental health. Social isolation specifically is correlated with an increased risk of mortality in people over the age of 52 and has also been linked to cognitive decline and an increased incidence of dementia. Seniors who are socially isolated or lonely also experience elevated levels of depression.
Even if aging adults have loved ones in their lives, they may not feel comfortable sharing difficult feelings with the people they are close to, which can also make them feel alone in their struggles. Also, in a society where mental illness is highly stigmatized, many people may feel ashamed about experiencing depression and loneliness and reluctant to share their experiences.
Humans are inherently social beings who require connection with one another just as we require clean air to breathe or a safe place to live. Without it, we begin to deteriorate in every sense. Therefore, restoring connection through human interaction can improve one’s quality of life, one’s health, and one’s sense of belonging in this world.
Combating Social Isolation with the Friendship Line
The Institute on Aging’s Friendship Line works to combat social isolation and loneliness by providing a toll-free, 24/7 phone service for adults living with a disability and adults over 60, like Larry and many others, who are in need of support. Services offered via Friendship Line include crisis intervention, suicide and grief counseling, elder-abuse prevention, and even daily outreach calls regarding an individual’s well-being.
While some aging adults who experience social isolation may not be comfortable talking about their problems to a stranger over the phone, as Larry wasn’t, the volunteers of the Friendship Line are extensively trained to handle a wide variety of sensitive and challenging crises with empathy, compassion, safety, and kindness. Often, it only takes one friendly conversation with a Friendship Line volunteer for people to feel comfortable calling again or requesting daily or weekly outreach calls. In fact, many callers come to realize that it is actually easier to talk to a stranger rather than friends or family because they don’t have to worry about being a burden to loved ones.
The Difference Connection Can Make
Larry is just one aging adult who benefits immensely from the Friendship Line. Through his calls, he was able to receive grief counseling that supported him through the loneliness and emotional struggles that came with the loss of Edna. In addition to the counseling, Larry also receives weekly check-ins from a Friendship Line worker to make sure that he is safe in his home. While life without Edna is certainly not the same, Larry is starting to feel a little more at peace with her passing and less alone in the world.
The Friendship Line also helped Larry connect with outside services that made living alone in his home a little easier for him. Now, he uses a meal delivery service instead of cooking all of his meals himself, and he even started attending a Social Day Program that helps him connect with other aging adults in his community.
It is so important for aging adults to be supported and cared for, especially when they feel utterly alone in the world. If you know of an aging adult or adult with a disability who could benefit from the support the Friendship Line offers, please share this information with them and connect them with this invaluable resource. Whether it makes them feel a little less isolated or helps them reconsider suicide, the Friendship Line is here to help. Our phone number is 1-800-971-0016 and calls are always free.
If your aging loved one is living alone and struggling with loneliness or social isolation, Institute on Aging can help you help them by providing a variety of services and resources. To learn more about how we can help, contact us today.