Many older adults suddenly find themselves struggling to survive in situations of isolation and loneliness, often for the first time in their lives.
Such isolation can result from factors such as illness, the loss of a spouse or partner, mobility issues, lifestyle choices, and a decline in energy, among others, all of which can contribute to the shrinking of one’s social ties. And while living the life of a recluse may have its benefits for a select few, it’s not always a good approach to healthy living for the rest of us.
Experts agree that a sense of belonging is integral to human wellness, especially among seniors. In every way—biologically, cognitively, physically and spiritually—we are meant to belong, to be needed, to function as members of a tribe. Seniors who aren’t able to engage in social settings may face serious health and behavioral problems, including increased risk of high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, colon cancer, cardiovascular disease and depression.
According to Karen L. Starr, MD, an internist specializing in geriatrics at Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, staying connected and sharing similar interests with others is important at any age—but it’s all the more crucial for seniors, who may have more limited opportunities for social interactions.
“The more isolated people become, the more apt they are to see a decline in their overall health, including decision-making abilities,” says Dr. Starr. “When there’s no one around to socialize with them, or to address any errors they may be making—such as not eating, or perhaps taking too much or too little medication—seniors set themselves up for a number of potential negative issues.”
Dr. Starr notes that it’s often easy for older adults to withdraw, since not interacting with the world can make them feel safer and less vulnerable. In fact, seniors often view social activities like mingling and forming new relationships as barriers that can cause discomfort and anxiety. For some older adults, it can seem far easier and less stressful to simply avoid having to face unfamiliar environments.
Fortunately, says Dr. Starr, life for seniors doesn’t have to be that way. The one immediate step older adults can take to improve their lives is to exercise. She points out that while exercise itself isn’t necessarily a remedy for isolation—although meeting new people through exercise is certainly possible—it can help reduce some of the many health problems associated with loneliness. Improved physical and mental health, she says, is a good first step toward extending oneself and remaining active in a social environment. Before beginning an exercise program, she advises, older adults should check with their physician, especially if they have health problems like heart disease, diabetes or arthritis.
However, exercise alone probably isn’t enough. Seniors also should make a point to maintain existing social relationships or generate new ones.
“Try not to let your friendships lapse,” she advises. “Sure, you might get sick, or something else may come up to take you out of a social setting for a time. But when you’re back on your feet, try to get back into your normal social activities and maintain those connections.”
There’s a wide range of ways in which older adults can initiate and maintain social engagement. For instance, churches provide many outlets for volunteering and helping others, and parks and recreation departments offer numerous low-cost classes in such diverse areas as arts and crafts, meditation, gardening, scrapbooking, music, and computer use. In the process of learning and keeping the mind supple, older adults also may find opportunities to make new friends.
“Owning a pet is another great way to help restore your connectedness,” says Dr. Starr. “With a pet under your care, you’re no longer just looking out for yourself—you have someone else for whom you’re responsible. Having a pet helps give you a sense of purposeful living and keeps you active.”
Reaching Out to Seniors
Kristen Fulton-Wright, a behavioral specialist and bereavement counselor at Sentara RMH, echoes Dr. Starr’s recommendations for staying connected and adds another vital element to the equation: the deliberate involvement and engagement of others.
“If you know an older adult who may be facing isolation issues, make a point to reach out to that person,” Fulton-Wright advises. “Invite them to tea or to an event, or simply take time to visit them. Too often we see our neighbors’ front doors closed, and we think they are fine—but in reality they may be craving social connection.”
“Helping seniors avoid disconnection from the human tribe—the one we are wired to be a part of—should be a responsibility for all of us,” she continues. “Everyone benefits from that kind of interaction.”
Fulton-Wright also notes that for seniors who are computer savvy, social media can be beneficial in helping to reduce loneliness. However, social media shouldn’t be thought of as a replacement for face-to-face contact. Liking something or posting a comment on Facebook, she says, is fine, but it’s only one small component in an overall effort to combat feelings of isolation.
“There’s something far more substantial in a video chat, a telephone call, or even texting,” says Fulton-Wright. “These are great ways for older people to connect with younger generations as well. I have clients who have successfully maintained relationships with children and grandchildren through Skype and texting.”
Fulton-Wright stresses that maintaining ties with family and friends is central to what is known as “belongingness.” Such positive interactions can even reduce the risk of dementia.
“Importantly, this advice doesn’t just apply to seniors—it’s relevant regardless of one’s age,” says Fulton-Wright. “The need for connection exists throughout our lifespans, and the quality of our relationships increases our sense of life satisfaction. Put simply, staying connected to others helps us to lead healthier, more satisfying lives.”