Social isolation and loneliness can affect anyone, at any stage of life. However, older adults have an increased risk of social isolation and loneliness due to a combination of physical, health-related, and societal factors. This can have a significant impact on their physical and psychological health, as social isolation has been linked to serious health conditions such as heart disease, depression, and dementia.
What is Social Isolation?
Social isolation is a lack of meaningful relationships with others and little or no social support. Anyone can become socially isolated at any point in their life. For example, people may become socially isolated when they:
- Start a new job in an unfamiliar setting with colleagues they don’t yet know
- Leave home to study at college
- Retire after working in the same place for a long time
- Move to a new city where they don’t know anyone
- Leave a long-term relationship and lose contact with mutual friends
Social isolation is not the same as loneliness (which is a feeling of being alone). However, it is a significant risk factor for loneliness; i.e., you are more likely to feel lonely when you are socially isolated.
Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Seniors
Social isolation and loneliness are widespread among older adults, with some reports suggesting that as many as one in three seniors feel lonely. This can significantly compromise a person’s mental, physical, and cognitive health. The impact of social isolation and loneliness on health is so profound that it has been linked to several serious illnesses, including:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Depression and anxiety
Understanding Social Isolation and Loneliness
Social isolation is defined by a lack of connection with others and having little to no social contact. This is different from loneliness, which is a feeling of being alone and disconnected from others. You can be socially isolated and not feel lonely; conversely, you can be surrounded by people and feel alone.
Loneliness impacts some groups of people more than others. However, social isolation increases a person’s risk for loneliness. People aged 65 and over are more likely to be socially isolated for a variety of reasons, including:
- Living alone
- Loss of family and friends
- Chronic illness
- Physical disability
- Sensory impairments (e.g., loss of hearing or eyesight)
How Do Societal Attitudes Contribute to Social Isolation in Seniors?
Seniors have an increased risk of social isolation compared to other age groups. Often, this is due to age-related factors such as illness or physical disability, sensory impairment, loss of friends and family, and living alone.
However, societal attitudes towards older people may also contribute to their social isolation and loneliness. Ageism (defined as prejudice or discrimination towards people based on their age) is very common. Most people are not even aware of the subconscious stereotypes they hold towards older people, but 60% of respondents in one survey reported a lack of respect for seniors.
Negative attitudes towards aging can make older people feel that their lives are less valuable, and prevent them from reaching out to others. Ageism is also thought to contribute to depression and anxiety among older adults, which can further contribute to social isolation.
The Impact of Loneliness and Social Isolation on Seniors’ Health
Chronic loneliness and social isolation are serious public health concerns known to increase seniors’ risk of developing psychological, physical, and cognitive illnesses. Social isolation has even been associated with an increased risk of death across all causes.
Psychological Impact: Loneliness, Anxiety, and Cognitive Decline
Social isolation and loneliness can have serious psychological health consequences and may lead to:
- Cognitive impairment (i.e., difficulty remembering, learning new things, concentrating, communicating, and making decisions)
- Accelerated cognitive decline (i.e., more rapid loss of cognitive function)
Physical Consequences: Heart Disease, Weakened Immune System, and More
Social isolation is not only bad for seniors’ mental health; it also puts them at higher risk of physical health conditions. Researchers have found that social isolation and loneliness increases the likelihood that a person will develop:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- A weakened immune system
Loneliness may even contribute to early death, as one large study found that social isolation was associated with a 26% increase in risk of all-cause death.
Social Isolation and Dementia
Social isolation and loneliness can have a significant impact on cognitive health and are linked to increased risk of dementia. Research has found that socially isolated people are 27% more likely to develop dementia than the general population.
Socializing engages the brain, and cognitive stimulation has been associated with a lower risk of dementia. People with fewer social connections have less opportunity to flex their cognitive skills, which may be why they are more likely to experience cognitive decline.
Impact of Social Isolation on People With Dementia
Social isolation has been linked to an increased risk of dementia among older adults and can worsen the symptoms of those with cognitive decline. One study found that social isolation caused by the recent pandemic significantly exacerbated negative emotions and behaviors among people with dementia. Those with mild to moderate dementia experienced increased anxiety and depression, while people with severe dementia exhibited greater symptoms of agitation. People with moderate to severe dementia also experience:
- Increased forgetfulness
- Worsened hallucinations
- Increase in obsessive-compulsive behaviors
- Altered appetite
- Increased difficulty in carrying out daily activities
Social isolation of seniors with dementia also has a negative impact on their caregivers. The same study reported that caregivers felt more tired and overwhelmed during the COVID-19 pandemic and that these feelings were correlated with the severity of dementia symptoms.
Recognizing Signs of Loneliness and Social Isolation in Seniors
Loneliness and social isolation have a profound effect on psychological and physical health, especially among older adults. Seniors can become isolated and lonely for a variety of reasons, including:
- Living alone and becoming isolated from family members and other social connections
- Loss of a spouse, family member, or close friend
- Health conditions that make it difficult to leave the house
- Social barriers caused by sensory impairment, mental health issues, or geographical isolation
Learning to recognize the signs of social isolation and loneliness in seniors can enable you to step in and help before their well-being is negatively impacted. Some early signs and symptoms of loneliness among older adults include:
- Loss of appetite
- Disrupted or poor quality sleep
- Less frequent communication (e.g., fewer phone calls)
- Verbal cues (e.g., stating that they feel bored or lonely)
- Increased buying habits
- Increased tendency to binge-watch TV shows
- Increased craving for physical warmth (e.g., hot baths, hot drinks, being under blankets)
- Increased amount of time spent alone
- Other behavioral changes (e.g., becoming more withdrawn or deliberately isolating themselves)
If left unaddressed, feelings of loneliness can become more severe. Symptoms of chronic loneliness may include:
- Decreased energy
- Inability to focus or feeling ‘foggy’
- Feelings of self-doubt, hopelessness, or worthlessness
- Substance abuse issues
- Body aches and pains
- More frequent illness
- Increased anxiety and restlessness
Catching loneliness early is important as left untreated, it can increase seniors’ risk of serious health conditions. If an older adult in your life is showing signs of loneliness, there are several things you can do to help them feel more socially connected and fulfilled.
Preventing and Mitigating Loneliness in Seniors
Social isolation and loneliness can increase feelings of depression and anxiety, which can make it harder for people to take the necessary steps to feel better. Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to help seniors break free of social isolation and loneliness such as initiating social interaction, encouraging new hobbies and engagement in new activities, and using technology to reduce isolation.
Regular Social Interaction
Loneliness is frequently caused by social isolation. Having more frequent, pleasant interactions with friends and family members has been found to significantly reduce feelings of loneliness in the following hours. Therefore, you can help seniors to break free from the cycle of loneliness and isolation by making the effort to spend more time together. Some ideas for ways to spend more time with older adults in your life are:
- Make weekly visits or telephone calls to catch up and share conversation
- Suggest dementia games that can be enjoyed as a duo or group
- Offer help with household tasks, especially those you can do together
- Bring food you can prepare and eat together
- Arrange outings to parks, cafes, restaurants, and other pleasant locations
Encourage Engagement in New Activities and Hobbies
Hobbies and activities often fall by the wayside as we people older, especially if they are also managing physical or mental health conditions. Hobbies have been found to reduce stress, decrease feelings of depression and anxiety, and improve overall wellbeing. Finding new activities that you can do together can also help to relieve feelings of isolation and loneliness.
It is important to choose activities that are of interest to the person you want to spend time with. This is especially true if the person has dementia, as cognitive decline can make it difficult for people to learn new things. Some suggestions for activities you can enjoy with older adults in your life include:
- Cooking or completing household tasks together
- Reminiscing over photographs and sentimental items
- Playing with toys together
- Arts and crafts
- Sensory activities such as aromatherapy or massage
- Listening to music together
- Putting together a memory box or scrapbook
- Using an activity box to encourage engagement
The Role of Technology in Reducing Isolation
Face-to-face interaction isn’t always possible. For example, you may live far away from your loved one, or they may have medical conditions that make it difficult to leave the house. In these cases, technology can help to bring you closer and mitigate feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Research has found that social interactions via video call can reduce loneliness and improve mood. If you’re unable to visit a socially isolated senior in person, scheduling regular video calls can go a long way to helping them feel more connected to others.
Available Resources and Support for Lonely or Isolated Seniors
There are plenty of resources available to help mitigate social isolation and loneliness among seniors. These organizations are dedicated to reducing social isolation and loneliness among older adults by:
- Providing ways for seniors with disabilities to connect with others
- Connecting older adults and their families with support services such as caregivers and transportation
- Pairing seniors with volunteers who provide companionship and social stimulation
Not everyone who is socially isolated feels lonely, but social isolation increases a person’s risk of loneliness. Feeling lonely can have a serious impact on physical and psychological health, and is thought to increase the likelihood of early death more than obesity and as much as smoking. Fortunately, you can help older adults in your life to feel more connected to others by initiating more social interaction and by encouraging them to participate in hobbies and new activities.