This article appears in Senior Care Guide 2018.
Living alone is a reality for nearly one-third of older adults who reside outside of nursing homes or hospitals, according to the National Institute on Aging. Living solo doesn’t mean a person is lonely, but it can contribute to a sense of loneliness.
Loneliness, depression and poor health are linked, said Sue Johansen, vice president of partner services at A Place for Mom, a senior-care referral service based in Seattle.
A lack of interaction and connection with others can lead to below-average nutrition, Johansen said. An isolated person’s diet suffers. An individual thinks, “Why bother cooking?” and instead opts for packaged or fast food. That can lead to depression and then medication mismanagement, dehydration and even a trip to the emergency room, she said.
Senior isolation can even increase risk of mortality, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that found, “People who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop, because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.”
“Loneliness and/or isolation is common in seniors,” said gerontologist Dr. Kori Novak, a senior fellow at University of Suffolk, United Kingdom. “For many people, retirement drastically changes their social habits and opportunities. While early in retirement, many people tend to stay relatively active, as the years roll by, particularly once a spouse or significant other is no longer involved, depression often sets in. Lack of social engagement and a culture where families and children are spread out geographically adds to the propensity that elders will experience loneliness.”
Make a connection
Staying involved in the community can give seniors purpose, Johansen said. They can engage at a senior center, join a group, volunteer, attend events or enroll in a class.
“The hardest part is to take the initiative, especially if you don’t have a support system,” Johansen said.
The easiest way is to start where the barrier to entry is the lowest, Johansen said. For example, maybe a person has stopped attending religious services or a club meetings.
“Try that one thing. If they have success, it opens them up to more success,” Johansen said.
Alone is OK
Feeling lonely? That’s OK.
“One of the best cures for loneliness is just going outside, wave at people going by, bask in the sunshine or feel the breeze on your face. If you are unable to get outside, sit by a window,” Novak said.
Do something pleasant.
“Anything where you can even hear someone else talking may help,” Novak said. Turn on the radio or have someone help you find an interesting podcast. Listen to a book on tape.
“If you are so inclined, pets are a wonderful way to alleviate loneliness and depression,” Novak said. Interaction with a pet can help lower blood pressure and anxiety, boost memory and improve a person’s sense of well-being, she said.
Make the most of meals
For a homebound senior or one who doesn’t have a strong local support system, check with a local Meals on Wheels.
“Drivers not only bring hot delicious meals once a day, but also check on loved ones and provide a friendly face once a day,” Novak said.
For people who like cooking, subscribe to a meal service, which can offer smaller portions for single diners. Or, invite someone over and take the opportunity to share a meal kit, Johansen said.