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Family Caregiver Blog

Helping Aging Parents with Loneliness and Social Isolation

By Sally Abrahms

What do you consider the biggest health issue in our country? Cancer? Diabetes? Heart disease? Obesity? Smoking? If you’re
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the Surgeon General of the United States, it is social isolation. Being isolated often leads to loneliness—another
serious condition for aging parents.

One scientific journal reports that 43 percent of elders are lonely. Fortunately, there is a movement afoot by physicians,
researchers, geriatric specialists, social service professionals and other enlightened folks to get the word out—and
offer ways to mitigate isolation and loneliness. The AARP Foundation has launched a campaign called Connect2Affect and
the United Kingdom has Campaign to End Loneliness.

Clearly, you can be socially isolated but not lonely or lonely even though you’re surrounded by others. But, typically the
two go hand in hand.

It is that all-alone-in-the-world feeling that triggers loneliness. Of course, people of all ages get lonely, but when you’re
older—like our aging parents—it can have grave consequences.

Literally. Studies (not “study”) show that older people who are isolated and lonely tend to die earlier than those who have
rich social interactions and connections. One 2015 Brigham Young University study of 3.5 million people over 35 years
found that loneliness resulted in a 26 to 32 percent rise in premature death. And here’s the kicker: scientists consider
loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Not scary enough? Social isolation, researchers believe, may be linked to higher risks of stroke, heart disease, dementia,
hospital readmission and falls. Let’s put this another way: when you stay socially engaged, it can slow cognitive issues
and boost happiness.

What to Say Instead

Reasons Our Parents Are Lonely

The world shrinks when you get older. In the early years, there are little kids, family and/or work. No time to even realize
you’re lonely! Then the children, if you have them, take off. They may have their own children, with the whole crew living
far away.

There are more reasons why people wind up alone and lonely:

  • Retirement. No longer in an office or at a job, there are often fewer daily interactions with others.
  • Friends. People with whom you have shared meals and memories—your life--may move away to be near
    their grandchildren, dodge cold weather, live in a senior community or have a new adventure. Others get ill.
    That robust social circle can peter out.

    The same is true if your aging parents decide to move and have to start all over without a strong support system. It’s harder
    to meet new people, and with ageism, some younger people aren’t interested.

  • Different Kinds of Challenges. These may be mobility (too hard to get out), hearing loss or cognitive decline
    such as Alzheimer’s. When you’re no longer driving, transportation options may be inaccessible, unaffordable or too
    overwhelming to figure out.
  • Spouses. They may get physically sick—and the relationship may shift to a caregiver role that is isolating.
    Or, with increased longevity, some spouses decide they’d rather be single than stay with their no-longer soul mate
    for another 20 or 30 years. (Long marriages that go bust are known as “grey divorce.”)
  • Housing/Living Arrangements. One out of three older adults enter old age widowed, divorced or never
    married. Thirty-five percent of women age 65+ who live alone are widows, with 32% of women age 65+ living
    solo. By age 75+, 46% of women live by themselves. Keeping social connections can be even harder for single
    older men.
  • Finances. When you’re on a limited budget, you may not be able to move or change your situation.
    That house that is in a peaceful rural setting or has charm but way too many stairs might have been perfect
    when Mom was younger, but lacks what really matters now: people nearby, services and amenities.

How to Reduce Loneliness and Social Isolation

The good news is that loneliness does not have to be permanent.

Try these strategies:

  1. Make plans, and create opportunities, to be with other people. Does your parent’s community have special
    programs or offer ways to stay connected? Front Porch, for instance, uses technology in its senior communities called
    It’s Never 2 Late so older adults can receive support, including engagement and learning online. Elders can also
    have rich online experiences (video chat, reminders, messaging, picture sharing) with the GrandPad tablet or Independa
    system.
  2. Rethink housing. How can your aging parent have regular contact and stimulation? Can Move move? Can her
    friend or someone else move in to split the bills and share a meal?

    Besides shared housing, many older adults find co-housing appealing. (You have your own place but also share common
    space where you can enjoy some meals and activities together and have daily informal interaction. Communities can
    be all older adults or multigenerational.) Some elders are moving to communities that have a social mission, such
    as helping former foster kids and their adoptive parents.

    Other alternatives include living in a naturally occurring retirement community (NORC), where there are enough seniors
    to offer services (medical help, transportation) and social programs.

  3. Participate in intergenerational activities, whether it’s improving kids’ reading skills, being part of
    a multi-age chorus, or sharing your personal story. The national organization Generations United has a directory
    of intergenerational programs around the country. The benefits for seniors include having a sense of purpose, sharing
    their knowledge, providing love, support and attention (and receiving it in return).
  4. Use technology to stay connected
    with family and the larger world. These include:

    • Virtual senior centers (VSC) allow homebound elders to participate in classes, events and activities with others
      even if they can’t be there in person.
    • Online forums let seniors “talk” to others about an interest (books, gardening, current events, meditation, music)
      or private issue (a disease, caregiving for a spouse, difficult daughter-in-law, grandparenting, forgiveness
      or guilt).
    • Free, online classes teach new subjects and can be stimulating.
    • Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa answers questions you ask it (“Is it going to rain today?” “Who was the third president
      of the United States?” “What time is it in London?”), play music you like, and even order take-out food.
    • Facetime, Skype, email and photo sharing can keep your parent connected to family and old friends. And, that
      old favorite – call. Voice is still important.
    • Virtual reality, still in its infancy, will let frail seniors feel that they are at a grandson’s college graduation,
      say, or traveling to an exotic place, by donning 3-D goggles.
  5. Research Resources. Besides the ones mentioned above, try your local Area Agency on Aging, the federal Eldercare
    Locator
    , your city or town and nearby senior center.