Today’s technology enables us to stay connected with people in ways never before possible. Family members can talk, see and interact with each other across the country with only a few taps on a phone screen. Yet research shows that people are lonelier today than ever before, and the elderly are the most likely group to have feelings of loneliness and isolation.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone in 2010. People are also having less children nowadays, says the AARP, and that means there will be fewer family members to act as caregivers.
Seniors that are lonely and isolated are more likely to decline and die faster. A UCSF study found that people 60-years-old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk for death. Isolated elders also had a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts.
Dr. John Cacioppo is a psychologist at the University of Chicago. He has 30 years of experience studying social isolation. One of his most significant findings is that feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline. He believes we evolved to be a social species and when we don’t meet that need it can have physical and neurological effects.
Quite frankly seniors feel isolated and lonely because they are in fact alone. We have an accepted culture in western society of moving our elderly family members into nursing homes and assisted livings when they become a burden to us. This change of environment can be unsettling and is very different than what they’ve been used to. Studies indicated that being surrounded by other elderly people doesn’t always fulfill the need for engaging communication with people that can combat the feeling of isolation.
What can be done to prevent loneliness in seniors?
As a caregiver, you can provide this much-needed interaction by engaging in meaningful conversation, paying attention to their wishes and getting out and sharing experiences together. Studies indicate it’s not just the amount of time spent with someone, it’s the quality and depth of that time that truly matters.