Social isolation occurs when an individual lacks connection and exchange with other people. Isolation is not the same as feeling lonely. When isolated and alone, there can be a higher risk of falls, chronic diseases and depression. Isolation intensifies loneliness. A person socially withdraws by avoiding people and activities.
The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging believes older adults who describe themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent increased risk of death. Our adult population living alone reduces into two categories: One, 29 percent of people age 65-plus live alone, and twice as many women live alone as men. And, two, close to 50 percent of older women age 75-plus live alone.
The federally funded agency says individuals need social connection to thrive and research shows that the negative health consequences of prolonged isolation and loneliness may be especially harmful for older adults.
It’s the reason that the national agency created the “Combat Isolation Program.” The series will focus on creating awareness, teaching individuals how to maintain and strengthen ties to family and friends and expanding social circles and to getting involved in the community.
The factors that put older adults at greater risk
Mobility or sensory impairment
Major life transitions or losses
Low income or limited financial resources
Being a caregiver for someone with a serious condition
Psychological or cognitive challenges
Inadequate social support
Rural, unsafe and inaccessible neighborhood
Transportation access challenges
Age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and gender identity barriers
Health effects of isolation and loneliness
Weakened immune system
Depression and anxiety
Higher use of emergency services
I head up the elder orphan Facebook group and hear complaints from members who feel lonely when aging and living alone and I know it’s a significant issue. It’s important for individuals to recognize the signs that tell them when isolation is a grave concern.
Do you leave the house less frequently?
Do you experience a loss or gain in weight?
Has your eating habits changed?
Do you feel depressed and withdrawn?
Do you refuse company?
Have friends or family approached you saying they’re concerned?
Has your cognitive ability declined and are you having sleep disturbances and persistent insomnia, which are reliable indicators of social isolation?
Some people do not socialize as a form of self-preservation after a traumatic event. Or they have not had positive life experiences. Feelings of loneliness are a tremendous challenge for older people.
Signs of isolation are verbal outpouring; prolonged holding of hand/arms; body language, and a defeated demeanor.
Carol Marak, aging advocate, columnist, and editor at SeniorCare.com. She earned a Certificate in the Fundamentals of Gerontology from the University of CA, Davis.