How to Help Your Older Loved One Feel Less Lonely

Older adults are at particular risk of the health effects of isolation

By Melanie Haiken, for Next Avenue

Here’s an all-too-common scenario: An older adult in your life is becoming increasingly isolated, and you worry that he or she is lonely, but you’re not sure what to do. It’s not the easiest subject to bring up, especially when family members or loved ones don’t want to admit they’re feeling alone.

But lack of contact with others is a serious issue among older adults, social services experts say.

Sometimes an older adult lacks a network of family and friends; other times he or she may withdraw into isolation as a result of health conditions, depression or mental illness. Physical limitations such as a fear of falling can keep an older adult isolated in her home, as can fatigue, chronic pain or shame over memory problems. Many older adults become nervous about driving long distances or can no longer drive after dark and may fear or resist using public transportation.

Interesting new research is showing that loneliness may speed the onset of dementia. In a recent Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, researchers followed more than 2,000 healthy, dementia-free older adults for three years and found that 13 percent who reported feeling lonely developed dementia by the end of that time, as compared with 6 percent with strong social support.

In 2012, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) compiled the results of numerous studies and concluded that there’s a link between loneliness and fatal heart disease. In one study cited, researchers at Harvard followed 44,000 people with heart disease and found that 8 percent of patients who lived alone died after four years, compared with 5.7 of those who lived with a spouse or others.

In research on the outcomes of coronary disease, Swedish researchers discovered that coronary bypass patients who checked the box “I feel lonely” had a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than other patients 30 days post-surgery, and that even five years later they were twice as likely to have died.

When researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, followed a group of older adults for six years, they found that by the end of the study period, almost a quarter (22.8 percent) of all those who had reported feeling isolated or lonely had died. And another 25 percent had suffered significant health declines. By comparison, among those who said they were happy or satisfied with their social lives, only 12.5 percent had declining health, and only 14.2 percent had died.

And before you dismiss this type of isolation as common only among the very old, consider that the average age of the adults in the study was just 71. In other words, many baby boomers are reaching retirement age without strong social networks to support them.

Another study, this time from Brigham Young University, analyzed study data for more than 300,000 people and found that loneliness was as strong a marker for early death as alcoholism and heavy (more than 15 cigarettes a day) smoking.

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