Isolation & Loneliness is Unhealthy for Seniors

Joelin Mueller, Life Enrichment Assistant

Everyone likes quiet time alone for a refreshing nap, a good book, or a cup of coffee. After a lifetime of work and family responsibilities, many seniors find this new stage of their lives to be liberating—a new era of relaxation. However, there is a big difference between the choice to spend time alone and feeling lonely. When an older person feels lonely, it’s usually because he or she does not have the option of spending time with other people due to dwindling social circles, poor health, loss of a spouse, or transportation obstacles. For seniors in particular, this isolation can be a genuine threat to health and overall wellness. Consider these facts:

  • Feelings of chronic loneliness threaten a person’s health as much as smoking and obesity
  • Isolation can cause high blood pressure, depression, and a spike in the stress hormone cortisol. These conditions can lead to heart disease and stroke.
  • Lack of social interaction and purposeful living fosters a higher rate of cognitive decline which can lead to dementia.

Scholars have researched the American phenomenon of seniors who adamantly express their desire to “age in place;” that is, grow old in their homes, often alone. Up to 98 percent of older Americans aspire to this lifestyle, despite centuries of human history where the elderly are well integrated into larger social groups, be they families, cross-generational housing, or senior-focused communities. What are the reasons for this expressed wish to grow old in isolation? From old-fashioned American individualism to anxiety over change, seniors who are isolated often deprive themselves of an important time in their lives when they can feel better, care for themselves as they deserve, and continue to help others. Consider these findings:

  • Seniors who interact with other people are better able to perceive others’ needs, not just focus on their own. Their thoughts do not only turn inward, and therefore they are able to maintain healthy mutual relationships.
  • Seniors who are socially engaged can use their lifelong talents and wisdom to help others and discover new or renewed senses of purpose.
  • Humans never stop learning. Isolation blocks new ideas and activities that fuel the mind’s deep need for stimulation, and this poses a threat to mental clarity and cognitive health.
  • We build emotional resilience when we nurture optimism and regulate our responses to life’s ups and downs. When we spend our days alone, we tend to become pessimistic and reactionary—two big reasons why friends and family may stay away from visiting more often.
  • People who take in different perspectives and ideas develop skills to define their place in the world. Seniors in particular have a gift for discovering joy and connecting with their hearts, an ability that can usher in spiritual peace.
  • Scholars contend that community programs and senior living options help resolve issues of isolation and offer more benefits if they are considered earlier than later.

Better health, meaningful relationships, and peaceful hearts. Choosing to stay connected with other people as we grow older is a choice for a longer, happier life. To assess your level of isolation, or that of someone you love, use this online tool. Then make a move toward better wellness!