Part 1: Assessing the epidemic
For America’s over-65 population, loneliness is a slippery slope. More than 40 percent of seniors regularly experience loneliness, according to a University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study. This feeling of separation and disconnection from others may predict serious health problems and even death, the UCSF researchers find. Given the consequences of loneliness, many in the healthcare industry have recommended that it be diagnosed and treated with the same rigor applied to any other disease or chronic condition.
Looking at the statistics
The senior loneliness epidemic has been thoroughly studied, and the statistics are compelling:
- Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26 percent.
- Lacking social connections is as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
- Coronary bypass patients who report feeling lonely have a mortality rate 5 times higher than other patients 30 days post-surgery.
- Lonely individuals have a 64 percent increased chance of developing clinical dementia.
- People who are lonely report 5 percent more severe symptoms in the common cold than those who are less lonely.
- Those who are extremely socially isolated cost about $130 per month more in Medicare spending than their non- or less-isolated counterparts.
“Loneliness is taking a heavy toll on our nation’s seniors,” says Tamara Lynn Meadows, RN-BC, divisional director of clinical operations in Oklahoma at StoneGate Senior Living, a leading provider of senior living services in Texas, Colorado, and Oklahoma. “As research continues to quantify the realities of senior isolation, healthcare professionals are focused more than ever before on spotting lonely patients and determining the best way to support them.”
Much of the problem, Meadows says, stems from the growing number of seniors who live alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 12.5 million older adults live in one-person households, representing 28 percent of people aged 65 or older. The Administration on Aging (AoA) drills down even further into this statistic, noting that the number of women living alone far outnumbers men: while 72 percent of men over 65 are married and living with someone, only 45 percent of women are married and 37 percent are widowed. Almost half of women over 75 live alone.
People over 65 have an average life expectancy of almost 20 more years, AoH notes. “That’s a long time to live alone,” Meadows says. “Also, more and more older adults do not have children, and that means fewer family members are providing care and companionship as those adults age.”
“One observation I’ve had over the years is that even those who live with family are often alone much of the day. Their children and grandchildren are busy and involved in activities outside the home. There are many good things about aging in place at home, but I don’t think we anticipated the loneliness that can result.”
Learning to spot the triggers
“An important first step in alleviating senior loneliness is to spot the signs of social isolation,” Meadows says.
Along with having no local network of family and friends, seniors may withdraw into isolation for other reasons. They may be despondent from the recent loss of a spouse or friend. They may be alienated as a result of a chronic health condition, depression, or failing memory. Loss of hearing may propel feelings of isolation. A fear of falling or of driving can keep seniors confined to their homes.
“Key to addressing loneliness is listening closely, observing vigilantly, and encouraging seniors to share what they’re thinking and feeling. Then, a plan can be developed to help them better connect—from finding social groups at senior centers to learning to use social media sites online.”
Lowering the risk of caregiver loneliness
Not only are seniors at risk for loneliness. Their family caregivers can also be vulnerable. Caregivers may feel less able to set aside their caregiving duties to engage in the social relationships they previously enjoyed, which can start a downward spiral of isolation and depression. Temporary respite care can help ward off caregiver loneliness and restore the caregiver’s sense of connection.
“We get calls all the time from families and even hospices or home health care agencies looking for a place of respite for the senior in their care,” Meadows notes. “They’re either worn out or in need of a vacation. Respite care can bring peace of mind to caregivers, as they know their loved one is getting care and companionship—while the caregiver has an opportunity to take a break, restore social connections, and reengage in other parts of their life.”
Discover the many options available to seniors to aid in fighting feelings of isolation and depression.
In part 2 of this blog series, we’ll focus on how forward-thinking senior care communities are helping seniors leave their loneliness behind.