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Social Isolation and Loneliness: Health Effects on the Elderly

Feb 7, 2020

By: Sarah Kaminski For Leagal Reader

Although the risks associated with social isolation are serious, battling them shouldn’t be too difficult. The key is to encourage forming positive habits.

When thinking about the risk factors connected to elderly people living on their own, our minds tend to steer towards possible dangers around the house. More often than not, the culprits we recognize involve stairs, bathroom accidents, or security risks.

But, one aspect of health we tend to forget about is mental health. For individuals over the age of 85, the chances for social interactions become severely limited, either due to a narrowed social circle or isolation caused by health issues and declining mobility. Isolation or loneliness can not only cause depression, but they can even increase the chances of suffering from dementia or lead to more rapid health decline.

What is the difference between social isolation and loneliness?

While they affect health in a similar way, social isolation and loneliness are two different things.

The first is an objective state, caused by the limited availability of human contact. This can be due to age and health, but contributors also include lack of family connections and certain environmental factors. These factors may be their living situation and limited or no access to communication technology (such as a computer or even telephone).

Loneliness, however, is a subjective feeling. It is entirely possible to be surrounded by people, yet still, feel this way. In general, individuals who choose the word lonely to describe how they feel have no friends or confidants and are limited in terms of opportunities to establish new connections.

Health risks of isolation and loneliness

The thing about a lacking social life is that it can affect anyone, at any age. Just because someone is young doesn’t mean that they cannot feel lonely or that they don’t face the health risks of this state of mind.

Research has shown that the main health consequences of a lack of connection include:

  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • Poor cardiovascular health
  • Weak immune system
  • Cognitive decline
  • Higher risk of premature death

Combatting the effects

The good news in all of this is that the above-mentioned health risks can be combatted by implementing simple solutions. Helping a family member build up a healthy social life isn’t impossible – even if you don’t live near each other. Here’s what you can do:

  1. Encourage them to go out
    Social isolation is often self-imposed, so encouraging older adults to go outside and seek human contact can be a great way to start. You can suggest that they check out events that are related to their interests. If they are able, they can run smaller errands close to home, which will give them opportunities to interact with people from their community. Alternatively, you can help them find a club that they would enjoy, such as a gardening or chess club.
  2. Sign them up for a class
    Learning is a great way to meet people. If possible, you can sign elderly loved ones up for an exercise class such as water aerobics or yoga. These kinds of activities are not only a good way to establish connections, but also provide a number of health benefits. Joining a local golf club is another excellent idea. Alternatively, you can help them find a cooking, painting, or pottery class. Language lessons are also a good idea, as they can be done remotely.
  3. Make use of technology
    One of the greatest advantages of technology is that it can be used to combat loneliness. Whether it’s through social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter, or chatting apps such as iMessage and WhatsApp, when used properly, these resources can have positive effects on emotional wellbeing. Furthermore, certain tech solutions can also help increase at-home safety, or can even be a source of entertainment.
  4. Call them every day
    Last but not least, it’s important to consider what you can do for those people in your life whom you cannot visit often enough. Even a habit as simple as calling them every day can mean the world. It can also be a great way for you to keep in the loop regarding their health, concerns, and general safety. If you want to get the closest thing to face-to-face communication, you could try out video calls, which have been shown to reduce loneliness.

Conclusion

Although the risks associated with social isolation are serious, battling them shouldn’t be too difficult. The key is to encourage forming positive habits. After all, leading a rich social life will not just help your parents feel happier, but it can greatly contribute to their health as well.

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