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Aging Resources WNC

How To Identify and Mediate Social Isolation and Chronic Loneliness

Social isolation is an issue that seniors have had to manage for many years. The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted how severe this problem is, particularly with older members of society. Feelings of loneliness can occur and persist even while surrounded by others, and conversely, sometimes people are very content to live alone. 

Signs of Chronic Loneliness Include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Reduced activity
  • Social anxiety
  • Lack of desire to be around others
  • Lack of sleep or sleeping too much
  • Decline in hygiene
  • Binging TV or movies
  • Disorientation and confusion

Some Factors Can Increase the Risk of Social Isolation

Social anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can develop in any aging adult as changes in abilities are noticed. Seniors may not have the same desire or capability to attend social gatherings or participate in social activities as they used to.

Elders living far from loved ones may find it difficult to maintain close relationships, and those who require assistance with daily tasks are less likely to be socially active. Also, seniors who are no longer driving are at risk if dependable replacement transportation is not available.

Patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia are also more likely to suffer from social isolation. 

Any seniors who are no longer driving are at risk if dependable replacement transportation is not available.

Potential Ripple Effects 

Consequences of social isolation and chronic loneliness directly affect mental health by causing symptoms ranging from poor sleep to depression, and even rapid cognitive decline. 

These problems can also manifest in the body, causing physical symptoms such as decreased cardiovascular function and immunity. Isolation and loneliness have been notably linked to high blood pressure and can even put individuals at a higher risk for stroke. 

Several Ways to Help Improve Chronic Loneliness 

Home care services can help with more than activities of daily living. An aide who is a good fit can continue to be a part of a support system, regularly checking in and socializing as well as providing loved ones with a sense of security by knowing a companion is regularly present.

Productive activities like volunteering, group learning, or group fitness programs can boost morale. Local YMCAs have great options for these.

Libraries offer activities, book clubs or discussion groups, or volunteer opportunities that can provide a sense of community and purpose. Reading can also keep the mind sharp, stimulating the brain as well as bringing back memories. 

Senior centers are places of support that offer meals, activities, clubs, and exercise, and they are often free of charge. In addition to on-site support, there are often planned group outings such as trips to farmers markets, theaters, museums, or casinos, giving seniors events to look forward to and encouraging an active lifestyle.

Adult day services can make a difference for those who need increased supervision or care. Seniors who are craving social and mental stimulation, friendships, exercise, or volunteer opportunities can be taken care of on-site while stimulating activities are offered through programs such as Mountain Explorers through Mountain Care Services.

Video calls like Zoom or FaceTime as opposed to text messages, emails, or traditional phone calls have been found to reduce the risk of depression. Any video chatting platform can be simple to use and require little to no set-up or cost, making it easy to speak with loved ones face-to-face at any time. Apps such as Skylight or other photo-sharing platforms make it easy for friends and family to share photos and videos as well.

Meal delivery services such as Meals on Wheels can provide more than just nutrition. Beneficial social interaction occurs when meals are delivered.

Psychological therapy is available, and some may offer counseling in a group setting. Therapy can provide support for transitional times, managing feelings, and discovering enjoyable, meaningful activities within one’s current capabilities.

The Institute on Aging is available to provide emergency verbal assistance to anyone experiencing a crisis situation, as well as offer social interaction in the form of routine conversations during non-emergency situations. They also offer well-being checks and can provide resources such as information and referrals if needed. Reach the Friendship Line toll-free at 800-971-0016.

Having a pet to care for offers immediate companionship as well as opportunities for socialization with other pet owners. 

Your local Council on Aging offers a variety of beneficial services, activities, and programs for people over 60 such as food and meal delivery, assistance navigating Medicare, caregiver support, housing repairs, and elder justice.

Taking Action

Seniors who stay active and engaged are happier, typically healthier, and likely to live longer. Identifying feelings of loneliness due to social isolation and mediating those as soon as possible can help seniors continue to live socially integrated in different ways, making a significant positive impact on mental and physical health. If one idea is not a good fit, continuing to experiment with other options that may be more suitable is key to finding the best-case scenario for this chapter of life.

Aging Resources Magazine 2023-2024