Lonely old man sitting on his couch.

What is Loneliness?

Loneliness is the feeling of being alone. We can feel lonely when we’re by ourselves or even when we’re with a group of people. It’s a subjective perception of having few social relationships, or ones that aren’t meaningful beyond a superficial level. We’re all too familiar with senior isolation during the 2020 pandemic. Social distancing created a true lack of social contact leading to feelings of loneliness.

As human beings, we’re naturally social. Our connections to others through social relationships are essential for our physical, emotional and mental health. Social isolation is even used as punishment, for example, sending a teenager to their room, or placing a prisoner in solitary confinement. Social interaction is good for our brain health and promotes a sense of safety, belonging and security. 

How does loneliness happen?

With all the technology we have at our disposal, you’d think we’d be more connected than ever and there’d be fewer lonely people in the world. Yet, in America, loneliness is at epidemic levels. More than 3 in 5 people report feeling lonely, left out or misunderstood. More people also live alone: In 1960, 13% of the population lived alone. Today, more than a quarter of our population lives alone, and nearly 30% of those living along are older adults. 

You or someone you know may be at risk for factors that cause loneliness and senior isolation:

·   Living alone after the loss of a spouse or partner

·   Family members and neighbors moving away

·   Acting as a full-time caregiver for a loved one

·   Coping with dementia, depression, anxiety

·   Decreased balance and mobility, making it hard to walk 

·   Lack of independence due to poor health

·   Loss of driver’s license or a lack of transportation

·   Smaller social support network

Not just a feeling

Research has consistently shown that loneliness and social isolation have a profoundly negative effect on our health. The impact has been compared to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and loneliness and isolation are as much a risk factor for death as obesity. The range of physical and psychological responses we have to loneliness includes more inflammation and stress hormones in our body, increasing our risk of early death through cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke. The stress of chronic loneliness also weakens our immune systems, increases anxiety and depression, and accelerates dementia and cognitive decline.

Loneliness and senior isolation can cause older adults to have trouble managing daily tasks like bathing or staying active. The lack of social support makes a senior less motivated to take care of their physical health or eat nutritious meals.  

What can you do about loneliness?

If you live alone, you may be increasingly isolated and not realize why you’re feeling blue. Even if you don’t live alone, it’s essential to continue making friends and nurturing relationships. For many seniors, retirement is a time to assess how they can improve their quality of life. To address senior isolation, the remedy is to invite more social interaction. It might take you out of your comfort zone, but you’ll find it worth the effort:

Get active

Moderate exercise three or four times a week will boost your mood and help you feel more hopeful and in control. Exercising with others in a scenario where there’s opportunity for conversation, such as a walking or hiking group, is a good way to get to know people and allow friendships to bloom.

Join a group

Make the effort to plan one or two regular activities you’re comfortable with. These activities can center around an activity where you can interact with, learn from, or help others. For example, a club where you can work side by side with fellow knitters or quilters, an organization such as Toastmasters where you can practice public speaking in a supportive environment and improve your communication skills, or a volunteer group where you can be part of the planning and giving process.

Let someone in

Sometimes, people just need to be asked. Invite a friend or a neighbor to your home for coffee or a meal. Host your neighborhood book club. Or if you’re able to rent out a room in your home, look for a reputable agency that will help you find a roommate with common interests. Some colleges even have programs that look for affordable housing for students, who help around the house in exchange for room and board.

Be present

If you’re surrounded by people but still feel lonely, there are a few things you can do to connect. Make a point to shut off your phone or put other distractions away and pay full attention to the people you’re among. Gently hold eye contact with the person you’re talking with, and use active listening techniques to really absorb what they’re saying. Look for ways to have a meaningful conversation that goes beyond discussing the weather or sports. Truly focus on what the person is saying, and resist the temptation to interrupt or respond with a story of your own. You can add to your quality of life in so many ways by staying in the present and enjoying the moment.    

Adopt a pet

Pets make us happy because they’re always happy to see us. Their presence gives us reasons to get up and get moving. Petting and holding an animal releases beneficial chemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin in our bodies, promoting feelings of calm and relaxation. Whether you’re a dog or a cat person, or a fish or a bird person, being a pet owner gives you something to talk about, share photos, and compare notes with others.

Talk to a pro

Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Ask your doctor to refer you to a professional senior-friendly counselor. Talking through things with an objective third party can put things in perspective and give you tools and ideas about what to do.

Community living

You don’t have to accept feeling disconnected and alone. Consider the benefits of residential life in a senior living community like Canterbury Court where senior isolation simply doesn’t exist. You’ll continue to live the independent lifestyle you always have, but with social connectedness built into every day. Whether you choose to interact a little or a lot, there are neighbors just down the hall, staff to lend a hand whenever help is needed, and endless opportunities for socialization and connection under one roof.There are no strangers at Canterbury Court. Only friends you haven’t met. Contact us to learn more about our welcoming retirement community.