Loneliness most treatable
Experts say social connections and emotional ties are essential for seniors, who are vulnerable to losing loved ones through death.
While Americans tend to associate the holidays with togetherness, joyful occasions and feelings of warmth and happiness, the season can also worsen feelings of loneliness and isolation for some people — especially older adults. Loneliness is not only bad for seniors’ mental health, it can affect their physical wellbeing as well.
“The holidays can present families with an opportunity to spot signs of loneliness in their older family members and take steps to do something about it,” says Dr. Kevin O’Neil, chief medical officer of Brookdale Senior Living. “Isolation and loneliness in seniors can lead to debilitating depression, high blood pressure, dementia and shorter life spans. Time and time again we see that when seniors overcome loneliness, make new friends and feel a part of a caring community, they’re happier and their physical health improves.”
Research illustrates the link between loneliness and the advancement of dementia, deterioration of physical health and shortened lifespans. Conversely, multiple studies show feeling connected and happy is good for your health and can lead to a longer life span. What’s more, happiness really can be contagious. In fact, one study by researchers at the University of California and Harvard University found surrounding yourself with happy people can make you more likely to become happy yourself.
“Social connections are vital for people of all ages,” O’Neil says. “Emotional ties are even more important for seniors, yet they are also more vulnerable to losing those bonds through the death of a spouse, grown children busy with their own lives or the relocation of a long-time friend who moves closer to be near their own family.”
As families gather for the holidays, they should be alert to signs their elders are feeling lonely or isolated, including:
• Your loved one has suffered a loss, either the death of a spouse or friend, or relocation of a long-time cohort.
• They give verbal cues, such as complaining they have no friends, feel confined to their home, have no one to talk to or severely miss a long-deceased companion.
• They exhibit signs of depression, including trouble falling asleep, irritability, loss of appetite and disinterest in activities that used to excite them.
• Their eating habits have changed. Seniors who are feeling isolated and depressed may lose their appetite, or engage in unhealthful comfort eating.
• Personality or behavioral changes are evident. Your normally stoic loved one has become tearful, a chatty person becomes quiet, or an out-going personality is now withdrawn.
• They become “clingy,” holding a handshake or hug longer than normal, and becoming upset when it’s time for a visit to end.
• They complain of pain or health issues that the doctor can’t explain. In some cases, the “illness” may be an attempt to get attention. In other cases, it can be a physical response to loneliness.
• A person who was once very capable may begin to have difficulty managing daily tasks or their finances.
“It’s vital seniors stay connected,” O’Neil says.
He recommends some tactics to help seniors combat loneliness:
• Get moving. Physical exercise increases the body’s level of “feel good” hormones, and can contribute to improved sleep, as well as fewer aches and pains. Seniors should get 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise per day, and if you exercise with companions, you’re also reaping the social benefits of the activity.
• Sit down with a friend or family member and watch a funny movie or TV show together. Laughter’s positive effects on the mind and body are well documented. Laughing together improves mood and can make people feel more connected.
• Make new connections. Sit with someone at lunch whom you don’t know well. Ask a neighbor to go for a walk with you. Join a club or social organization.
• Help yourself feel better by helping others. Volunteering has many positive effects on mental health. When you volunteer your time to help others, you’ll feel good about your actions and also expand your opportunities to meet new people.
• Learn something new — it’s not only good for cognitive health, it gives you the chance to make new connections with other students. Take a craft class, go to a personal finance seminar or take a cooking class.
“Loneliness can be a serious health issue for seniors,” O’Neil says. “Fortunately, it’s also one of the most treatable.”