As we age, the chances of becoming isolated from friends and family grows exponentially. In fact, it’s now estimated that 28 percent of Americans over 65 live by themselves. That grows to 46 percent for women over 65! Furthermore, the United States of Aging Survey even found that 8 percent of seniors in the U.S. are socially isolated. The isolation can be caused by the loss of a loved one or even just living in a hard-to-reach area.

Regardless of why, isolation is extremely damaging to a senior’s health, happiness, and quality of life. Unfortunately, isolation is also one of the least recognized health risks facing seniors today. With that in mind, what are the dangers of isolation, and how can you prevent it?

The Many Dangers of Isolation and Loneliness

Isolation is a frighteningly common danger facing American seniors. One study reported that 56 percent of seniors in nursing homes reported feelings of loneliness. This puts them at risk for many significant and life-altering detriments.

Seniors that are socially isolated or lonely experienced a 59 percent greater likelihood of physical decline.

Seniors that are socially isolated or lonely experienced a 59 percent greater likelihood of physical decline. Another study found that stronger social relationships increased likelihood of survival by 50 percent. Social isolation is “significantly associated with mortality” for a variety of reasons. Primarily, it can be used as a predictor of many detrimental health conditions, like depression and addiction.

Sadly, depression is common among socially isolated seniors. What’s worse is that depression can lead to social withdrawal, which further exacerbates the issues. We see similar conditions in senior hoarders as well, with cases of hoarding either causing or caused by social isolation. Social isolation is also linked with an increased risk of mental decline and dementia.

Physical and emotional conditions aren’t the only ways that loneliness can decimate a senior’s quality of life. One of the sadder preventable outcomes is an uptick in elder abuse. Distancing yourself from friends and family has been linked with elder abuse.

A senior who lives alone and doesn’t have a support system will find it more difficult to react in dangerous situations.

Being socially isolated also presents a genuine concern during emergencies. A senior who lives alone and doesn’t have a support system will find it more difficult to react in dangerous situations. For example, should you fall outside of reach of your phone, how would you get help? This is especially poignant because socially isolated seniors fall at a higher rate than other seniors.

What are the Signs?

Knowing the risks is only a third of the battle. Knowing the signs to watch for is equally important. Some of the risk factors that are caused by loneliness are also some of the clearest indicators. If a senior is withdrawing from public and events they previously loved, that’s a key sign. Watch for the signs of depression, like a poor health or financial outlook.

Keep in mind that even if a person isn’t living alone, they can still become isolated. In fact, studies show that loneliness can be contagious, meaning couples can fall to this social condition as well.

Prevention with a Few Simple Tips

The most important step you can take is to prevent loneliness from setting in at all. If a loved one is isolated, simply being there for them is a great first step. Getting family or neighbors to visit is also important in building a support system for your loved one. This is also true if you’re the one who is isolated. The important factor of this is to ensure you have regular contact with friends and family.

For many pet owners, taking care of something else creates a sense of purpose, which is a powerful remedy for loneliness.

Another way to beat loneliness is to adopt a pet. Owning a dog has well-established benefits to the physical and emotional health. The companionship pets give their owners is obvious, but for many pet owners, taking care of something else creates a sense of purpose, which is a powerful remedy for loneliness. How you find your sense of purpose differs from person to person, but some ideas to try would be taking on a hobby, volunteering in their community, taking classes, or getting a part time job.

Making transportation available is essential to combatting loneliness.

Making transportation available is essential. It’s much harder to get involved with your community if you can’t get around. If you are able to drive, great! Get out there and get involved. But if you’re one of the millions of Americans who don’t drive, find a way that you can get where you need to be. If there is a bus stop near your house, get a bus pass. If you have a friend who can drive, see if they’ll take you where you need to go. If public transit or a driving friend isn’t an option, it may be time to consider a retirement community that will have activities and events on site.

Finally, social media is a powerful tool in fighting loneliness. It brings your family to you, and it’s easy to find online communities that match your interests. This requires some technical knowledge, but with seniors the largest growing demographic on social media, they’ve proven that they’re quick learners.

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Social isolation is a debilitating condition that shuts you away from friends and family. It becomes even more dangerous for seniors, leading to a jump in mortality and depression. By knowing the signs and how to prevent it, you can protect yourself and your loved ones from suffering in loneliness.

Further Reading

Aging Care — The Elder Loneliness Epidemic
British Columbia: Health — Social Isolation Among Seniors: An Emerging Issue
The New York Times — The High Price of Loneliness
Slate — Loneliness Is Deadly