After the death of my grandfather, my grandmother was left to take care of herself. She lived two hours from the rest of her only family, that is, us. We tried to visit her about once a month, but this was hard on my father in particular. I think he hated to see how she was declining. I think loneliness was a big factor as well in her becoming depressed and having “pseudo-dementia” (like a misdiagnosis of dementia in the elderly due to depression). Thanks to my sister who took care of her, at least for a short while much of her loneliness and subsequently her depression improved.
Loneliness can be defined as the feeling of isolation, lack of companionship, or rejection. And researches have concluded that chronic loneliness is a significant public health issue contributing to a cycle of illness and healthcare utilization. Loneliness is a widespread malady that affects 28% percent of those over 65—that’s 11 million people in the U.S. alone! This number only increases with age. That’s not just our country. In one study, 1/5 of all Canadian seniors don’t participate in weekly or monthly social activities.
Loneliness has been found to be 50% deadlier than obesity. In another study, for those over 60, loneliness led to high levels of functional decline, including the ability to perform simple daily activities such as dressing, bathing, walking or climbing stairs.
One analysis showed that loneliness in seniors led to higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions, depression, and again, mortality. In another related study, hypertension was increased by as much as 30 points (though exercise and weight loss were shown to be effective in reversing this).
Don’t get confused between being “alone” and feeling lonely. (In fact, there may be many advantages of being alone, including having fewer mouths to feed, having less emotional crises with other family members, not hearing you are a burden from others, avoiding hurting others with your type of personality, having to live out a toxic relationship, you name it…)
In summary, social isolation has these shocking consequences:
- Mortality is increased: in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reported a higher risk of death, possibly in part because a smaller network to help prompt medical attention.
- Dementia is increased: Loneliness is linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline.
- Depression: Of course loneliness can lead to sadness, but clinical depression, a serious matter, has been verified by several studies as a consequence of loneliness. Pessimism is linked to this as well, as another consequence of loneliness.
- Long-term diseases: high blood pressure, arthritis (probably due to decreased physical activity in part) and even lung disease. All these add up to a higher risk for earlier (than ideal) long-term care placement.
- Bad habits: Poor diet, lack of exercise, increased vice usage such as smoking all are heightened as a consequence of loneliness.
- Immune system decrease: At UCLA they found that social isolation actually could “turn off” certain genes that produce antibodies to boost your immune system, while “turning on” other genes that lead to inflammation leading to reduced immunity.
There may be a “contagious” factor to this and even caregivers, especially with mentally and physically debilitated seniors can end up with loneliness and depression.
How to combat isolation and loneliness:
- Break the cycle: The University of Chicago concluded that loneliness creates a kind of vicious circle, causing negative thoughts and feelings that in turn make loneliness feel worse. By keeping in touch in social settings (though one may not feel like it) one can throw a wrench in this kind of negative feedback.
- Group exercise programs: Tai chi classes are a great way to just be around others who are going to make you feel better because they feel better too. Tai chi has also been demonstrated to reduce the chance of falling.
- Technology: Video transmissions such as Skype are not the future anymore, they are here now, and allowing several members of the family to contact Grandpa or Grandma in a push of a button will help combat loneliness.
- Hobbies: Taking a class involving other people, such as painting, or a musical instrument, or a language will be a fun and productive way to beat isolation.
- Volunteering: There are many elder volunteers at my hospital. I see them working for years. It seems the longer they work, the more their immune system builds up because they never seem to get sick! But at the same time, I always see them with a smile because a big benefit of volunteering is knowing you are helping others, as well as beating loneliness!
- Give it time: Do you think lonely people are mean? You may be right because, on a cellular level, their body feels it’s on a constant alert for threat. Remember the Grandpa in Heidi—it took a while for his grumpiness to wear off despite his new found company. So don’t give up on your own or others’ loneliness just because its effects didn’t immediately disappear.