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How to Help Your Older Loved One Feel Less Lonely

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


(This article appeared previously on Caring.com.)

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.

Fact: Loneliness Harms Your Brain

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.

Fact: Loneliness Harms Your Heart

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.

Fact: Loneliness Kills

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.

4 Ways to Protect Your Older Loved Ones from Loneliness

What can you do if an older adult in your life is growing isolated or lonely? Here are four simple steps you can take to help your loved one reconnect:

1. Help your loved one become more social-media savvy. As younger folks know all too well, you don’t need to leave your house to catch up with friends, follow current events and find out about events in your area. Email and news sites are one way to do this, of course, but using a social media site like Facebook makes it even easier for an older adult to feel connected, simply by being able to see what others are posting.

Facebook also offers plenty of opportunities to participate in “watercooler” discussions of current goings-on and share recommendations for books, movies and music. Ask yourself: Don’t you feel more motivated to get out and see a movie if your friends are talking about it? The same is true for your parent or loved one.

2. Encourage your loved one not to live alone. It’s common for older adults to want to “age in place” in their own homes, and you may hear strong opinions on this topic from your parents and older loved ones. But this may not be such a good idea, experts say; studies show that those who live alone are prone to a host of health issues compared with those who are married or living in a group living situation.

A Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry showed that people who lived alone or who were no longer married were between 70 and 80 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who lived with others or were married. And a recent study conducted at University College London found that social isolation — even more than loneliness — can lead to early death, even for those as young as 52.

3. Set up transportation options.
 Ask anyone who works with older adults living on their own: One of the biggest factors behind isolation is lack of transportation. Many older adults no longer drive, or they fear driving at night or on unfamiliar routes. Call your local Area Agency on Aging and get a list of all the transportation resources in your loved one’s area.

If, despite your encouragement, your loved one resists using group transportation, consider setting up a taxi fund so taking a taxi doesn’t feel like too much of a splurge. Another possibility: Find a taxi driver in your area whom your parent feels comfortable with and set up regular appointments for your loved one’s activities.

4. Help your loved one find support groups.
 When older adults with health problems find support from others with the same condition, it helps with loneliness and depression. They may also get valuable information and motivation to seek help for their health condition.

University College London researchers noted that the early death rate for socially isolated people may be due to the fact that they don’t have anyone to encourage them to get help with health problems or to intervene in a health crisis.

When loved ones have physical impairments, an online support group may ease anxiety and inspire ideas for ways to help themselves. If your loved one is a widower or widow, a bereavement or grief support group offers a chance to share feelings as well as a place to meet others in the same situation.

By Melanie Haiken
Melanie Haiken has written about health and family-related issues for magazines such as Health, Real Simple, Woman's Day, Yoga Journal, and websites such as BabyCenter.com, WebMD, and the Blue Cross/Blue Shield websites. She was managing editor at San Francisco magazine and has cared for both parents during health challenges.  

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