The topics of social isolation and loneliness have garnered an increasing amount of attention in the last 5 years. Landmark research conducted by the National Institute of Aging showed that both can lead to negative health outcomes, including great risk for depression, a weakened immune system, diabetes, cardiac disease and cognitive decline. Fortunately, there are ways to identify the risk factors and provide interventions that can help combat potential life-shortening effects in the older adult population.
The Difference Between Social Isolation and Loneliness
In order to understand how to intervene when you believe someone is socially isolated or lonely, we must first recognize how the two, though related, are in fact different. Dr. John Cacioppo, former director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, identified that social isolation is the objective, physical separation from others that can often occur when someone lives alone. Loneliness, however, is a subjective feeling of being alone or separated from others. Loneliness can occur even when someone lives in community with others, when no meaningful interactions occurring or if they feel like they are not understood. Being physically apart from others and no longer having the opportunity to make connections, engage in conversations can certainly lead to feelings of loneliness.
Risk Factors for Social Isolation vs. Risk Factors for Loneliness in Older Adults
Because social isolation and loneliness don’t always co-exist, it’s important to identify the risk factors for each. Most common risk factors for isolation in the older adult population include:
- loss of a spouse or long-term partner, adult children moving away
- loss of a close friend or friends, due to illness, move or passing
- loss of mobility and transportation
When someone has to adjust to living alone after being married or partnered for most of their adult life, this can have devastating consequences on physical and mental health, especially if there aren’t other family members or friends close-by who can come by more often following the loss. Additionally, older adults will start losing their friends as years go by and they may have a very hard time replacing those relationships or the activities they shared with that friend. Last, when an older adult makes the decision to stop driving, or their family member makes the decision for them, it will often lead to a period of time of not knowing how to get from one place to another or to places they once enjoyed.
When it comes to loneliness, the most common risk factors in older adults are:
- rejecting offers for connection from family members, neighbors or community members – can indicate lack satisfying contact
- lack of willingness to share ideas with others – can indicate not feeling valued by the broader community
- loss of interest in contributing in any meaningful way to others – can indicate a sense that life lacks meaning or purpose
The situation of being isolation due to the events listed above can often lead to feelings of loneliness. When people are cut off from others and experiences that bring context and meaning to their lives, it can be short time before they don’t see any point in continuing to make the increasing challenging effort of reaching out and planning interactions for the day.
What to Do When You Are Concerned about a Loved One
If you are a friend or family member of an older adult who you feel is experiencing either social isolation or loneliness or both, there are ways to help them and to encourage them help themselves. Start by having a conversation that allows them to think about the extent to which they feel lonely. Asking some questions from a place of compassion can help shed some light on underlying issues. Am I feeling left out? ‘To what extent are my relationships supportive? Why have I lost touch with people I once spoke with? These can open a dialog and foster a mindset of working together to find some solutions.
AARP's How Connected Are You? is a tool that can help assess the degree to which someone feels isolated and can be completed by a family member or by the older adult. Once some areas of need have been identified, you can create a plan for how to alleviate some of the feelings and physical isolation your loved one may be experiencing.
Creating a Plan to Help Someone in Need of Connection
Now that you have a better sense of why and to what extent your loved one is isolated or feeling lonely, you can offer suggestions for ways to connect with others and help to hire care that will give the older adult consistent companionship and will reduce the separation they are or feel they are experiencing.
- Help them connect with a support group for widows and widowers.Engaging with peers who share their struggle can provide them with a renewed sense of confidence and desire to reconnect with their community.
- Encourage your loved one to visit a local senior center to find groups that meet on a consistent basis. Consistency is key! If they attend events that only meet once, it will be challenging to forge new relationships from those brief interactions.
- Challenge them to come up with a list of 5 areas of interest in which they can volunteer and then have them, or assist them, to reach out to one organization related to an interest. This can help make the older adult feel both valued and connected.
- Search for common interest events that happen on a regular basis at the local library. Sharing ideas with others and listening to other perspectives will enrich the lives of all involved.
- Hire a Care Pro who will be a consistent companion for your loved one. Phone calls and visits from someone they trust and look forward to talking with can offer something to look forward to and an opportunity to engage inactivities they once had an interest in, and equally important, to share their valuable knowledge.
Understanding how your loved one has reached the point of being socially isolated or feeling lonely, is the key to helping them put the right intervention in place. We are all hard-wired for connection, and when that doesn’t come to someone as easily as it once did, offering to help create plan to reconnect is likely to be met with relief and gratitude.