We are social creatures, and connecting with others is beneficial at any age. However, our risk of loneliness and feelings of isolation increase as we get older.
According to the National Institute on Aging, nearly three in 10 senior citizens live alone, and those with cognitive impairments like dementia live with additional obstacles. These feelings of isolation and loneliness can have a negative impact on both mental and physical health.
The good news is there are ways to foster senior social connection that can show an almost immediate improvement to health and well-being. Let’s take a closer look at the impacts of loneliness and isolation, and explore ways to promote senior socialization.
Feeling isolated vs. feeling lonely
“Isolation” and “loneliness” are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s an important difference.
Isolation is a physical state that impedes having regular contact with others. The size of one’s social network, transportation availability and access to resources are all conditions that prevent making social connections and may contribute to being isolated.
Loneliness is a mental state of emotional distress caused by feeling separated from others. These feelings can be short-term or ongoing.
Living alone does not always make someone feel lonely, but social isolation can sometimes lead to loneliness. Conversely, it’s possible for someone to feel lonely even when they are surrounded by others. It’s important to pay attention to the warning signs of loneliness and social isolation in older adults and take action before health problems occur.
Quick Guide: Creating a Social Senior Lifestyle
Why senior isolation and loneliness are harmful
Isolation and loneliness can impact mental health regardless of age. However, mobility issues and sudden changes in social situation – such as the death of spouse, retirement and family and friends moving away – make older adults more susceptible.
The adverse health effects of isolation and loneliness include an increased risk of:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
In an article for the National Institute on Aging, Dr. Stephen Cole, Director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, called loneliness “fertilizer for other diseases.” He notes that “the biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in the arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease.”
Long-term social isolation can also increase the risk of dementia by as much as 64 percent. For people already diagnosed with dementia, lack of social connection can increase the rate of cognitive decline.
Because loneliness comes with so many side effects, including a weakened immune system, Dr. Cole is developing social and psychological interventions to combat loneliness. His research suggests that having a sense of purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells – and that helping others also helps people feel less lonely.
Obstacles to senior socialization
A lack of social connection can quickly escalate into the very issues that hinder connection, so early intervention is important. Being mindful of these common roadblocks to staying active and cultivating healthy senior friendships is crucial to helping overcome them:
- Physical ailments
- Mobility issues
- Cognitive decline
- Loss of a spouse or friend
- Limited social support network
Fortunately, there are as many benefits to socializing as there are risks to isolation. If an older person you know is already challenged by any of these issues, you can still help them get back on course.
Benefits of socializing for seniors
Countless studies have shown that making meaningful social connections helps older adults feel less isolated and also improves both mental and physical well-being, increasing quality of life in several ways.
Reduces stress – Social activity helps older adults better manage stress, which improves the immune system and cardiovascular health.
Improves brain and body fitness – People with a diverse social network are likely to exercise more, which has physical, emotional and cognitive benefits.
Reduces anxiety and depression – Consistent social activity helps keep these health risks of isolation and loneliness at bay.
Improves emotional well-being – Social interaction fosters self-expression and discovery by connecting us to others and the outside world, all of which helps build a sense of self-worth and boost self-esteem.
Reduces reliance on medication – Being actively engaged with others releases endorphins and hormones that can reduce pain and elevate mood, thereby decreasing the need to turn to medicinal remedies for these issues.
Increases mental alertness – Frequent social engagement provides intellectual and emotional stimulation that can prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Extends life – Being socially active increases longevity. One study showed that those who were socially isolated and lonely had a 50 percent higher risk of dying compared to those who were socially active.
The key to realizing these benefits long-term is consistent social engagement. One study confirmed that the positive effects of being socially active can be seen almost immediately. Research conducted at the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State revealed that adults between the ages of 70 and 90 who were socially active had better cognitive performance on the day of the interaction and the following two days.
The keys to successful social events for seniors
It’s natural to think that the way to be more socially connected is to be around more people, but it’s more complex than that.
Research has shown the long-term benefits of socializing for seniors require both quality and consistency. Consistency does not mean the quantity of interactions, but rather that they occur on a regular schedule. One nine-month study showed that older adults felt their quality of life improved after participating in just one hour-long weekly activity. Furthermore, one-on-one activities are just as effective loneliness-busters as group activities. It’s not the size of the crowd but the routine occurrence that’s most important.
Here are some common characteristics of successful social activities for older adults.
Gives agency – Having a say in choosing the event has a greater impact on reducing loneliness, as events planned by others can feel patronizing to older adults.
Can be adapted – For instance, karaoke sing-alongs are fun, but consider the style of music – Frank Sinatra or Doris Day may be more appropriate than AC/DC or Lady Gaga.
Feels productive – Events that involve accomplishing tasks or goals rather than passively listening or watching others are more effective at reducing loneliness.
Ways older people can remain socially connected
It’s one thing to know that connection is critical for good health, and another to implement meaningful opportunities for engagement. Here are some ideas to help you plan or create beneficial activities and events.
Get physical – Exercise is a great elixir for loneliness, but it’s also important be mindful of your senior parent’s physical limitations. Some older adults may welcome dancing, whereas others may prefer walking, gardening or chair yoga.
Lend a helping hand – Volunteering boosts the sense of purpose that comes from helping others.
Join group activities – Outings to museums, libraries or church programs can sometimes include free or low-cost dinners, events and educational workshops.
Share their passion – Whether it’s painting, scrapbooking or photography, participating in a favorite hobby at a senior center or community group is a wonderful way to bond with others.
Make a day of it – For those living with memory loss, adult day programs offer opportunities to engage with others. Seek out programs that encourage participant input in the day’s activities.
Play a game – Game nights stimulate the brain, promote camaraderie and build a social network. Such events are popular at churches and community centers – or you can organize your own.
Stay hungry for knowledge – Studies show that an active mind is a happy mind, and opportunities for continued education abound at universities and community colleges – many free of charge.
Get out and about – Joining a friend for an art exhibit, walking the mall or spending some time in the park provide the mental and social stimulation that reduce loneliness.
Widening older adults’ social circles helps them make new connections – and it does not always have to be with people their own age. Intergenerational social interaction can be rewarding for both parties. There are many local resources you can turn to for guidance, such as adult day centers, senior centers or other community and church programs.
People belong together®
Atria was founded on the idea that older adults thrive in an environment that provides daily opportunities for meaningful connection. Our senior living communities reflect this, from our Engage Life® events that help residents reach their potential to the many amenities and services that support togetherness, health and well-being. To learn more, find a community near you.