Recently, one of my good friends observed her neighbor sitting quietly on a chair in her front yard. As a woman who is normally milling around her yard tending to her flowers, it was unusual to see her there.
“I’m lonely,” she replied when asked how things were going.
Turns out, one of her dear friends died last week, and the loss left the neighbor questioning the value of her own day-to-day life.
At a time when more Americans report feeling lonely than ever before, it’s the older adult population that is particularly affected. Within the 18 percent of older adults living alone in the U.S., researchers from the University of California, San Francisco found 43 percent of those adults feel lonely on a regular basis.
Factors that often contribute to these feelings of loneliness include the loss of a spouse, a family transition where children move away, retirement, relocating to a different home, and the loss of friends and social support. All of these contribute to the isolating feeling often experienced by seniors.
Here’s more bad news. Loneliness has a negative effect on health. Many lonely senior adults succumb to depression, experience early onsets of dementia, and the results one study published in the Journal of The American Medical Association linked loneliness to fatal heart disease.
“Isolation and loneliness are prime signs that an older adult is without the support and tools needed to live a healthy, independent life and may be in danger of spiraling into decline,” said Melanie Haiken, senior editor for caring.com.
“As a society, we should be treating senior loneliness as the public health crisis it is, experts say, because of the profound effects loneliness can have on physical and mental health.”
In a world that demands so much our time, what can we do for ourselves or our loved ones who feel lonely?
First, it requires someone to care
This means making a commitment to spend time with your loved one. Investing as little as one or two hours per week has a positive impact. There is simply no substitute for personal interaction. Spend time listening to your loved one talk about her life, her interests or her needs. If your loved one expresses an interest in socializing outside of her home, explore a club or a group of people who share her interests and make arrangements for her to attend.
Build a social circle
Think back on your first day of school. At times, it was hard to make new friends and feel secure in your new surroundings. It’s no different now.
Studies show that older adults who remain unengaged will experience cognitive decline at a much faster rate than seniors who regularly interact with other people. If we have lost our social support systems, then we need to reconnect.
Where’s the party?
Many communities offer an array of events, clubs and activities for older adults. Laguna Woods is particularly good at this. Lunches, presentations, classes, and events can help us look forward to activities and dispel loneliness. Many recreation centers offer leagues for older adults in activities ranging from bowling to bridge and manicures to mahjong.
Bring the party
Due to physical limitations, many elderly adults are unable to venture out to public places without experiencing pain or discomfort. If your loved one is in this situation, bring the party to them. Plan a dinner party or book club with family members or close friends at home.
I grew up spending many afternoons playing games with my grandparents. I enjoyed the quiet companionship, and I learned how to play a rather mean hand of cards from two people who loved the game and enjoyed sharing it with someone.
“It doesn’t have to be a grand, time-consuming gesture,” said Anne-Marie Botek, Editor-in-Chief of AgingCare.com. “Something as simple as sending a card, dropping off a little present of their favorite food, or calling for 30 minutes a couple of times a week can go a long way to making a senior feel loved and connected to the rest of the family.”
By taking the initiative and finding ways to initiate social interactions, you can improve the quality of life for yourself and others. We all needs friends, and being a good friend yourself is the best way to prevent loneliness and find meaning.
Contact the writer: Amy Osmond Cook, Ph.D., in her bimonthly columns, uncovers the many factors that help a person stay healthy, live longer and have a better quality of life.