By Pat Matuszak
The image of an elderly widow or widower dining alone in a silent house may be one that comes to mind about the subject of loneliness among seniors. If a spouse has passed away, children have left home, neighbors have moved and retirement has cut off past associations, it would be natural for someone to feel isolated and alone. Add to that potential illness, hearing loss, poor eyesight or mobility issues that may come with age, and these elements can be vulnerable to a lonely lifestyle.
“The usual social connections we have in younger life end up changing as we get older,” says Dr. Carla Perissinotto in an interview with NPR.1 A geriatrician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, she authored a 2012 study about loneliness that concluded seniors who are lonely are at higher risk of death. They may also have increased health issues like high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease and the consequences of poor sleep and physical inactivity. Her study defined loneliness as “the subjective feeling of isolation, not belonging or lacking companionship.”2
The study also showed that loneliness may be reported by seniors even when their spouse is still alive or when they live with others and seem to have an active social life. The quality of a person’s social connections may be diminished in senior years as they enter retirement and lose professional connections or if mobility loss or other issues disrupt associations that they found satisfying.
Moving from a community where they had a close-knit social group to a new location for retirement might be another factor. Even if that retirement location is one the person has dreamed of and worked to achieve, changes in job and location can be stressful and present emotional challenges. Dr. Perissinotto’s study concluded that our growing senior population would benefit if healthcare included “…policies that promote social engagement and, more importantly, by helping elders develop and maintain satisfying interpersonal relationships.”2
How can you support a senior loved one who may be lonely?
If you notice symptoms of loneliness in a senior who is close to your heart, don’t hesitate to reach out and offer a hand to hold, a friendly conversation or an invitation to coffee. Bear in mind that you are interacting with a person who has plenty of life experience and will be likely to recognize well-meaning attempts to “fix” them.
While they may reject formulaic approaches, they will embrace genuine efforts to support them emotionally. They may just miss having an understanding friend who will listen and say, “That must be difficult.”3 They may already know what help they need to reconnect to old friends or make new ones. Give them a chance to tell you.
Dr. Dhruv Khullar explains in a New York Times article that helping lonely seniors can be an exercise in diplomacy. “Loneliness is an especially tricky problem because accepting and declaring our loneliness carries profound stigma. Admitting we’re lonely can feel as if we’re admitting we’ve failed in life’s most fundamental domains: belonging, love, attachment. It attacks our basic instincts to save face, and makes it hard to ask for help.”4 Diffuse your friend’s embarrassment by talking in a relaxed atmosphere, sharing coffee or a meal.
Let them tell you how things are, rather than assuming you know their situation. Just because someone has few friends, doesn’t mean they are lonely. Some introverted personalities enjoy more solitude than gregarious types and may have a few high-quality relationships in place of a large network of people.2
Seek first to understand by active listening before taking action. If you hear comments that lead you to believe your senior friend or relative is depressed or using alcohol or other substances to replace friendships they have lost, you can then encourage them to speak with a counselor or healthcare professional. “Feelings of sadness and despair, loss of appetite, apathy, reluctance to make decisions, suicidal thoughts and trouble sleeping are signs of depression,” says Dr. Lynn Ponton of Psych Central.5 If you see these signs, remember this is a diplomatic mission, so tread softly. Be a good listener before you give advice.
Getting there can be half the battle
Sometimes changes in ability to drive, walk or navigate the city can keep a senior isolated at home.1 If they need transportation because of mobility issues and you can’t personally help out, check with a local senior center for ride programs. Their preferred religious group may also provide transportation to gatherings and volunteer opportunities where they can meet people with the same interests and background.
Community recreation centers and YMCA facilities offer senior exercise and may be connected with transportation services. If you are familiar with ride sharing apps, your senior friend might benefit from your expertise. They may be thrilled to learn they can call for a ride to anywhere and back as their budget allows.
Their own expertise may be an effective means to make new connections. Most seniors have gathered a wealth of information in the profession they retired from and would freely share it with young people just starting out in their field. AARP’s initiative to end senior loneliness, Connect2Affect, is one place to connect seniors with such volunteer opportunities, social groups and neighborhood resources.6
The local senior center or council on aging office may also have suggestions. Specific interest groups like animal rescues, garden clubs, libraries, historic societies, scouting programs, art museums and schools may be thrilled to find an experienced volunteer and for the senior revisiting an old hobby these groups can be a great source of friendship.5
There are many educational opportunities for seniors through colleges, community recreational centers, art museums and even hospitals. Many hospitals host wellness seminars and support meetings for specific diseases that seniors are dealing with such as heart disease and arthritis. These groups sometimes raise funds for research or hospital care units and seniors can be prime movers when they take on their cause.
Colleges, community centers and museums encourage seniors to participate in seminars and classes on their favorite subjects or learn about new ones they didn’t have time to explore during their working years. New passions often lead to new friends with the same interests.
Some seniors find they have time to examine ways to improve their community by getting involved in city, county or state government meetings and causes. They may have more knowledge in the history of a local cause and can serve as an expert consultant who knows what has worked in the past and what roadblocks an initiative might encounter.
Other seniors have life experience with family issues and can offer insights about infant care, nutrition and cooking for new parents through local family service centers. Some seniors have skills that could help new families understand budgeting, tax filing and home financing. In all these areas, new friends and experiences are waiting to pull a lonely person into connection.
1 Gorman, Anna. “Easing Old People’s Loneliness Can Help Keep Them Healthy.” NPR, January 1, 2017.
2 Perissinotto, Carla M.; Stijacic Cenzer, Irena. “Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death.” JAMA Internal Medicine, Publisher: American Medical Association, July 23, 2012.
3 Yeh, Charlotte S., MD. “The Power and Prevalence of Loneliness.” Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School, Jan 13, 2017.
4 Khullar, Dhruv MD. “How Social Isolation Is Killing Us.” NY Times, December 22, 2016.
5 Ponton, Lynn, MD. “Coping With Loneliness: Tips for Seniors.” Psych Central, May 9, 2018.
6 “About Isolation.” Connect2Affect.org, AARP, 2018.