For many people, the holidays are a time to get together with family and friends. Parties and other social outings fill our calendars as we reflect on the past year and celebrate with our loved ones.
Yet for the 43 percent of seniors who say they feel lonely on a regular basis, this time of year may not be so merry.
According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), about 20 percent of adults who are at least 65 years old live alone. Those who are lonely can suffer from health problems as a result.
The health effects of social isolation
Humans are social creatures. But as people are living longer, we are losing many of the social connections we crave. For example, someone who loses their spouse of many years and doesn’t have family around them could find themselves struggling with loneliness.
The health consequences can be devastating.
In her 2015 study on public health and loneliness, Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad said social isolation can be as damaging to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. And according to the NIA, research has also linked loneliness to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weaker immune system, depression, anxiety and dementia.
Having loved ones around often encourages people to take better care of themselves, including eating well, exercising and taking necessary medications.
Here are some things that could put seniors at risk for loneliness:
- Living alone
- Not having close family or friends nearby
- Not leaving the house regularly
- Losing a spouse
- Loss of mobility
- Loss of hearing or vision
How you can help
You could be in a room full of people and still feel lonely. The key is feeling connected to others.
A study published last year in The Journals of Gerontology looked at seniors who sang in choirs at 12 senior centers. Those who joined the singing groups were physically and mentally healthier than those who did not participate.
Joining senior centers, clubs or volunteer groups are ways to boost self-esteem and make friends. Another way is to get outside and exercise. This can improve your mood and help you sleep better.
In Anne Arundel Medical Center’s Acute Care for the Elderly (ACE) Unit, we focus on getting patients moving with group exercises and activities that encourage social connections. We also encourage family members to visit as much as they can. That includes staying overnight to help reduce social isolation.
But there is no one-size-fits-all solution for loneliness. Some seniors may want to participate in group activities. Others may like one-on-one visits or phone calls with grandchildren or other family members. If you know a senior who is lonely, it’s important to find out what matters the most to that person in order to help them.
With the holidays in full swing, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the season. The best gift you could give at no cost during the holidays or any day is to reach out to those who may be at risk for loneliness and offer connection and companionship.