Loneliness: Risks & Resources - Western Asset Protection
loneliness risks and resources

Loneliness: Risks & Resources

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If you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone. According to Harvard, loneliness increased during the pandemic, with 36% of all Americans reporting serious loneliness. The problem is so severe that the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on the “epidemic of loneliness and isolation.” Loneliness can be especially difficult for seniors, but isolation does not have to be part of growing old.

Loneliness vs. Isolation

Loneliness and isolation are closely related. According to the National Institute on Aging, social isolation is a lack of social contacts and people to interact with, whereas loneliness is a feeling of distress related to being alone or separated. Social isolation can make a person feel lonely, but it’s also possible to feel lonely if you are not isolated. Furthermore, socially isolated people may not always feel the distress of loneliness.

The Impact of Loneliness

Loneliness is more than just a mental health problem – it also affects physical health. According to the National Institute on Aging, people who are socially isolated or lonely are more likely to be admitted to a nursing home or emergency room. Loneliness and social isolation are also associated with a wide range of health issues – from cognitive decline, dementia, and depression to high blood pressure and heart disease – and with an increased risk of death.

The impact of social isolation and loneliness is not minor. According to the advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, social isolation is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Seniors Are at Risk

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine says approximately one in four adults over the age of 65 is socially isolated.

Seniors who live alone are often at risk, but even seniors who live with someone else can experience loneliness. For example, a senior who lives with younger family members but doesn’t spend much quality time with them may experience loneliness.

Caregivers are also at risk. Any type of caregiving can be emotionally draining and time consuming, but being a caregiver for someone with dementia can be especially isolating. According to the Family Caregiver Alliance, 40% to 70% of family caregivers have clinically-significant symptoms of depression.

All this shows that loneliness is common among seniors – but it does not mean seniors need to accept loneliness as an inevitable part of growing old. Seniors can take steps to reduce loneliness and isolation.

How to Combat Loneliness and Social Isolation

The Office of the U.S. Surgeon General says the pandemic has increased the need for a Framework for a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. Among other things, this framework will establish community connection programs, train healthcare providers, and increase public awareness.

In the meantime, there are some options available if you or someone you know is experiencing social isolation or loneliness.

The National Institute on Aging recommends:

  • Finding an activity you enjoy. You could get back to an old hobby or take a class to learn something new.
  • Scheduling time with family and friends.
  • Using communication technology to stay in touch. Video chat and other technologies can help reduce social isolation. If you don’t know how to use these technologies, ask for help at your local library or community center.
  • Adopting a pet. Pets can be a great source of companionship. (Just make sure you pick a pet you can take care of!)
  • Participating in physical activity. A walking club is a great option.
  • Talking to your neighbors. Introduce yourself if you haven’t already.
  • Finding a faith-based organization. There are many different options – look for one that matches your beliefs.
  • Using your local senior centers, community centers, and public libraries. They have a lot of great resources.
  • Getting involved in your community. You can join a cause you believe in or volunteer your time at the local food bank or elementary school.

Resources to Help

If you or someone you know is experiencing loneliness, help is available.

  • The Eldercare Locator helps people find services for older adults and their families.
  • AmeriCorp Seniors is open to people aged 55 and older. If you want to make connections while giving back to your community, this could be a good option.
  • Senior Planet from AARP provides classes, videos, and activities to help seniors learn new skills and make new friends.
  • Your local library, community center, community college, and senior center are also fantastic resources. Many of these organizations offer free classes and activities to seniors.