We live in one of the most socially connected societies in history, or so the experts tell us. Facebook alone claims an astonishing 1.5 billion users worldwide, and it along with a constantly-growing collection of other sites and apps is supposed to ensure that we’ve always got a “friend” there to talk to or connect with, twenty-four hours a day.
Loneliness Epidemic Crosses all Age Groups
But if that’s true, why are we facing what some social scientists call an epidemic of loneliness? One article we read recently described many of today’s 20 and 30-somethings as chronically lonely, isolated, and socially disconnected. Now comes this just-published Time magazine article revealing that roughly one American senior out of three feels lonely and isolated either some or most of the time, and the toll that it takes on their health can be serious, even catastrophic.
This conclusion was based on the recently-released National Poll on Healthy Aging conducted by the University of Michigan and sponsored by AARP. Researchers surveyed 2,000 Americans between the ages of 50 and 80. “Studies have long connected loneliness to a range of health issues that could threaten longevity and well-being, including higher risks of heart attacks, strokes, depression, anxiety and early death,” says the Time article. “Now, the latest National Poll on Healthy Aging finds that about a third of seniors are lonely.” About 27 percent of respondents described themselves as “isolated” some or most of the time, and 30 percent said they socialize with friends, family or neighbors only once a week or less.
Loneliness Epidemic Shortens Life Expectancy
“Research shows that chronic loneliness can impact older adults’ memory, physical well-being, mental health, and life expectancy,” write the authors of the new report. “In fact, some research suggests that chronic loneliness may shorten life expectancy even more than being overweight or sedentary, and just as much as smoking.” The health risks, say several articles we researched for this AgingOptions blog post, can indeed be devastating. Isolation can increase the rate of cognitive decline. It often leads to a more sedentary lifestyle which in turn weakens bones and muscles. Studies have linked isolation among seniors to elevated blood pressure. Feeling lonely can lead to depression, sleep disturbance, and a general lnoss of interest in life. It’s also becoming clear that loneliness and isolation shorten senior life spans: one 2012 study tracked a large study group for several years and found that, among study participants, the death rate from all causes over the eight-year study period was 78 percent higher for the “high isolation” group than for those in the “low/average isolation group.”
The Loneliness Epidemic: Who and Why
In the AARP-sponsored study, more women than men described themselves as lonely, and the feelings of isolation and loneliness were (as might be expected) worse among those living alone. But ironically, living in a family home with grandchildren nearby was no guarantee of stronger social connectedness. “Resolving the problem of loneliness among seniors often isn’t as simple as getting them together with others or moving them in with their children,” one geriatrician told Time magazine. “The new poll found that seniors who lived with children were more likely to report a lack of companionship than those who didn’t.” That may be because, in today’s over-scheduled and over-stressed two-income families, there’s no one around who’s in the same age group as a senior loved one sharing the home. They feel ignored.
Loneliness, in the words of one geriatrician who has researched the problem, refers to the disconnect between the relationships we have and the ones we want. As a result, not all seniors who live alone consider themselves lonely: feeling lonely or isolated may depend on individual personality and perception. Someone living in a house full of busy people may feel lonely because the quality of their connection with others is poor. Beyond personality, however, we wanted to know what social and psychological factors contribute to the problem of senior loneliness, so we turned to this article from San Diego-based St. Paul’s Senior Services. “There are several factors that can lead to isolation and loneliness in seniors,” said the website, including:
- The death of a spouse
- Adult children moving away
- A change in living environment
- Close friends moving or passing away
- The fear of becoming a burden
- The fear of frailty – incurring an injury by venturing away from home
- Difficulty communicating due to hearing problems or language barriers
- Illness, including dementia
Can We Avoid the Loneliness Epidemic Ourselves?
Senior loneliness seems to us to be one epidemic we can all do something to alleviate, with some effort, compassion and intentionality. We can start with the people we know in our own neighborhoods, in our circle of acquaintances, or in our churches, synagogues or mosques. If all of us made it a point to help the seniors in our lives feel loved, appreciated and listened to, it would surely reduce their sense of isolation. But what about your own future? Are you in danger of finding yourself isolated and lonely as you grow older? Here at AgingOptions we approach retirement planning in a way that’s truly comprehensive, which means we help you plan for things others often overlook. For example, one way you as a senior can reduce the likelihood of living a lonely life is to plan well for your future housing options, so you’re not stuck living alone, unless that’s your choice. Another way to prevent living in isolation is to include your family as you create your retirement plans. When we guide you in planning for retirement, these facets – housing and family – are combined with financial, medical and legal strategies to create a personalized, individualized LifePlan, an AgingOptions exclusive.
We would love to invite you to find out more about LifePlanning and to discover how it will revolutionize your plan for your future. Rajiv Nagaich will answer your questions and show you how all the elements of your plan can fit together seamlessly. We offer a series of free LifePlanning seminars at locations throughout the region, so for a complete calendar of presently scheduled seminars, visit our Live Events page and register for the date of your choice. It will change the way you think about retirement. We’ll see you soon at a LifePlanning Seminar!
(originally reported at www.time.com)