Loneliness in seniors can cause early death as often as alcoholism, obesity, and heavy smoking.
Canadian Census data showed that about one-quarter (24.6%) of the population aged 65 and over now live alone. Consider these facts from the Administration on Aging:
People over 65 have an average life expectancy of almost
20 more years, which is a long time to live alone.
While 72 percent of men over 65 are married and living with someone, only 45 percent of women are married, and
37 percent are widows.
Almost half of women over 75 live alone.
Lack of contact with others is a serious issue among seniors. Sometimes, a senior has no local network of family and friends, and feels disconnected from his or her community. Other times, a senior may withdraw into isolation as a result of health conditions, depression, or mental illness. Fear of falling can keep a senior isolated in his or her home, as can fatigue, chronic pain, or shame over memory problems. In addition, many seniors become nervous about driving. As a result of these factors, older adults may be alone for days or even weeks without someone to watch over them.
Loneliness Affects Seniors’ Brains
Loneliness may speed up the onset of dementia. In a recent Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, researchers followed more than 2,000 healthy, dementia-free seniors for three years and found that 13 percent who reported feeling lonely developed dementia by the end of that time, as compared with 6 percent with strong social support.
Loneliness Harms Seniors’ Hearts
In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) compiled the results of numerous studies and concluded that there’s a proven link between loneliness and heart disease. In one study, researchers at Harvard followed 44,000 people with heart disease and found that 8 percent of patients living alone passed away after four years, compared with 5.7 of those living with a spouse or others.
In research on the outcomes of coronary disease, Swedish researchers discovered that coronary bypass patients who checked the box “I feel lonely” had a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than other patients
30 days post-surgery, and that even five years later they were twice as likely to have passed.
Loneliness Can Mean a Shorter Lifespan for Seniors
When researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, followed a group of seniors for six years, they found that by the end of the study, almost a quarter (22.8 percent) of all the older adults who had reported feeling isolated or lonely had died. Another 25 percent had suffered significant health declines. In contrast, among the seniors who said they were happy or satisfied with their social lives, only 12.5 percent had declining health, and only 14.2 percent had died.
Ways You Can Help Protect Seniors from Loneliness
Help seniors become more social-media savvy through their use of email, news sites and sites of interest (music, hobbies, shopping, etc.), and connections through Facebook.
Provide companionship with conversation and activities such as cooking and eating together, reading aloud to the senior, playing games, scrapbooking, listening to music, or taking a walk.
Provide transportation to seniors so they may visit family and friends, go shopping, attend events, and visit outdoor venues such as parks.
Help a loved one find support and/or social groups at senior centers, YMCAs, places of worship ─ wherever seniors tend to gather.
Also, as a caregiver, make sure that older adults who live alone take their medications as prescribed, eat healthy foods on a regular basis, sleep well, and get some form of exercise. Monitor them for these details, ask questions ─ and for extra support, encourage their family members to do so as well.
Isolation and loneliness are key signs that a senior lacks the support and tools needed to live a healthy, independent life and may be spiraling into decline. Comfort Keepers®’ Interactive Caregiving™ can help by keeping senior clients engaged physically, mentally and emotionally while living independently at home.
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