The Lone Senior: The Life and Death Effects of Social Isolation

01-02-2018The WellExcerpt taken from Lifecare Innovations

A 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows an association between loneliness and mortality, placing what used to be perceived as a relatively benign social problem on a par with smoking in its impact on lifespan, and even worse than obesity in this same regard.

The number of seniors living alone is estimated to be 11 million and growing. While living alone does not in and of itself guarantee social isolation and loneliness, it is most certainly a risk factor.

Risk Factors for Isolation

There are a number of factors that strengthen the prospects of loneliness and/or social isolation. These include:

  • Living alone
  • Being female, primarily because women tend to outlive their husbands;
  • Ambulation/Transportation issues – an inability to drive and/or reliance on canes, walkers and scooters, might make outings in the community difficult and infrequent. Darkness and bad weather also tend to discourage older people from venturing out.
  • Self-consciousness – encroaching cognitive deficits, hearing loss, incontinence and colostomy can all undermine confidence in social situations and foster an overall tendency to withdraw.
  • Psychiatric issues – behavior issues stemming from psychiatric problems often trigger alarm in those who do not understand psychiatric impairments. People who look or behave a little differently are excluded and avoided in many social contexts.
  • Being a caregiver – if a senior is the primary care provider for a spouse or adult disabled child, they are at much greater risk for social isolation. An inability to find suitable relief care providers often prompts these individuals to stay home, limiting their social spheres and opportunities.
  • Hoarding – the shame associated with hoarding behaviors often leads to estrangements from family and voluntary withdrawal from a community that does not understand the issue.
  • Relocation – moving to a new environment, even a communal setting full of people, can do little to allay loneliness in a person who is introverted or accustomed to being alone.

Avenues To Help Seniors in Isolation

Professional Intervention – A Care Manager and/or caregiver represent understanding connections that are both purposeful and social. No matter how difficult a senior may be, professional service providers will stay involved and help. If a given client’s isolation stems from problematic behaviors, professionals will respond with insight, expertise and patience. Professional service providers can also furnish transportation to outings, events and appointments.

Faith Communities – Many faith communities have organized activities and volunteer opportunities for seniors. Studies have shown that those involved with faith communities tend to have lower mortality rates, and they clearly benefit from having people around them to help in an emergency and watch for changes in health and behavior.

Technology – Facilitating a senior’s access to a computer and the social avenues it affords can help build bonds with geographically distant family members. Email and other electronic platforms provide a contact point and enable seniors to feel aware of, and included in, family activity.

The best measure to allay loneliness and social isolation is likely prevention. Awareness of the problem and its serious consequences should serve to make us all better and more vigilant family members and neighbors. Checking on lone seniors, inviting them out, and linking them with resources, can forestall the loss of meaningful connection and possibly lengthen and enrich lives.


Senior Centers Reach the Hard to Reach

Social Isolation Among Seniors: An Emerging Issue

Fourteen Ways to Help Seniors Avoid Social Isolation

You are Not Alone: Six Steps to Reduce Senior Isolation

As always, if you have questions or concerns about your health or are looking for resources in the community, contact Kathy Ford RN Parish Nurse/Coordinator Pastoral Care at 630-922-0081 ext. 28 or