Growing Awareness of a Senior Epidemic
Experts predict that more seniors will be "unbefriended."
- It's as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
- Its health impact rivals that of obesity.
- It raises the odds that a senior will move to a nursing home.
- It increases the risk of Alzheimer's disease, heart attack, depression, stroke and high blood pressure.
- It can shorten life—by almost 50 percent, say some researchers.
What is this condition that is so devastating for seniors? Loneliness.
Many recent studies have demonstrated the negative effect of social isolation. Sophisticated medical imaging even shows that loneliness and physical pain both cause a reaction in the same area of the brain. When we lack adequate social contact with other people, a distressing and painful cycle of decline can result, because in a sense, social skills are a "use it or lose it" ability. Loneliness is harmful for people of every age—and seniors today are especially vulnerable. University of California San Francisco experts say up to half of older adults are experiencing feelings of loneliness. With an increasing number of seniors—seniors who are living longer—this constitutes a serious public health problem.
What's behind this trend? The baby boomers are entering their senior years having had fewer children, a lower marriage rate and higher rate of divorce. Consequently, more seniors live alone. As they age, they are more likely to relocate to a new part of town … a new part of the country … or a new part of the world, distancing them from established social networks. Then, when they develop mobility problems, sensory impairment, memory loss or other challenges of aging, they have a much smaller pool of support to help them maintain meaningful social connections. A poll in the January 2017 issue of Caring Right at Home showed that only 2 percent of our readers were confident that they’d have a large, supportive network of family and friends to help them as they grow older!
Organizations that serve seniors are taking note. The AARP Foundation and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) recently partnered to create the Connect2Affect campaign to help seniors evaluate their risk for loneliness and locate opportunities for social connection. And the American Geriatrics Society (AGS) recently released new guidance for helping "unbefriended" elderly patients. The AGS warned, "Baby boomers are at particular risk for becoming unbefriended, since more than 10 million boomers live alone and as many as 20 percent have no children."
What can we do to promote social connections among seniors? It starts with our communities, with senior services agencies offering more social opportunities. Friendly neighborhoods are a plus. In a recent Caring Right at Home poll, the majority of respondents reported that they have helped out elderly neighbors at some time or another—yet today, it can be harder to get to know our neighbors. In place of sitting on the front porch chatting with passersby, we're holed up in our air-conditioned homes, often spending time online interacting with friends we've never actually met—friends who aren't in a position to step in and give us a ride to the doctor, shovel our front sidewalk, or bring over a pot of chicken soup.
So just as we plan for healthcare and financial well-being in our later years, we should make a plan for social wellness. As our needs change, we can choose a living situation that wards off isolation—perhaps a supportive living environment or a retirement community. Professional care provided in the home is another good source of human companionship, and for many seniors, that's only the beginning. Professional caregivers provide transportation, personal care and grooming to help their elder clients remain active and feel socially confident.
Raise your hand for a healthier old age
Retirement often leaves another big hole in our social life. We may not realize until we collect our gold watch how much of our day-to-day socialization is with our co-workers. Said Georgia State University professor Ben Lennox Kail, "Some older adults are leaving the labor force and not replacing it with anything. If you're not replacing work with a work-like activity, your retirement is radically different than how you spent most of your life, and not necessarily radically better." Kail conducted a study which showed that volunteering 100 or more hours per year can replace the benefits we get from employment.
April is Volunteer Month—a great time to consider the benefits of volunteer service for seniors!
Make donating your time and talents part of your plan for healthy aging. Almost everyone has something to offer others. Look for new opportunities, or continue a long-time volunteer job. Even if your health condition changes, you can make adaptations to continue your valuable service. "I have arthritis and I can't drive anymore," reports one senior volunteer. "But I still tutor at the school where I've helped out for so many years. I have an in-home caregiver who helps me get dressed, and drives me to the school. You could say I benefit from assistance to help me assist!"