Social isolation and loneliness can cause health problems, no matter how old a person is. But older adults are more likely to experience them: retirement narrows social networks; spouses, siblings, and friends pass away; changes in health may make it more difficult to get out; and children may have moved far away.
The health risks of isolation and loneliness include a wide range of physical and mental troubles, from depression and dementia to heart disease and even early death. In fact, according to recent research by John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago, loneliness among the elderly may increase the chance of premature death by as much as 14 percent.
Social support is clearly an important part of aging well. But keep in mind that everyone’s needs are different. Isolation, which is the amount of contact with friends and family, does not necessarily lead to loneliness, which is how a person actually feels. You can live with someone and still feel lonely. And other folks are perfectly content to spend time alone.
As you evaluate your loved one’s unique situation, consider these risk factors for isolation and loneliness:
How is your family member’s overall health? Limited mobility is a common reason for isolation. In many areas, the inability to drive a car any longer can severely restrict social interaction.
Does your loved one seldom get visitors? What about phone calls? Do children and grandchildren live far away? Is the person comfortable using Facebook, email, or Facetime to keep in touch with others?
While this doesn’t necessarily mean trouble, it can be a red flag. Does your loved one talk about getting together with friends or family?
Poverty, or even a limited income, can lead to fewer options for social activities.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors are much more likely than others to live alone, have no children, and be estranged from their biological families. They also tend to have higher disability rates and often face economic insecurity.
If you suspect your family member may be socially isolated, talk about it. Your loved one’s perceptions and feelings are your best guide to what’s going on and how to deal with it effectively.