Humans are wired to connect. Whether you’re a timid wallflower or the life of the party, you are designed to be social.
But as we age, our social circles tend to shrink. We may find ourselves living alone for the first time in decades following the loss of a spouse. Dear friends and family members pass away.
Age-related illness, hearing loss, impaired vision and compromised physical mobility, for instance, can limit our ability to pursue social opportunities outside the home.
It’s no wonder loneliness and isolation are common in older adults. According to a study cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.
Fortunately, there are many ways to stay connected and engaged. It just takes a bit of effort. First, let’s explore the difference between loneliness and isolation.
Loneliness versus isolation
Loneliness is the painful feeling or perception of being alone or separated. Social isolation is a genuine lack of contacts and people to interact with on a regular basis. Many people can live alone and never feel lonely. Others might feel lonely yet be surrounded by family and friends.
That said, even if you enjoy spending time alone, too much isolation can be bad for your physical and mental well-being. Studies continue to show social isolation and loneliness in older adults are linked to higher risks of developing health issues such as heart disease, depression and cognitive decline. Those who already experience poor physical health may be more likely to feel increasingly isolated or lonely as a result of limitations caused by their condition. For instance, poor eyesight often means no more driving to visit family and friends, attend religious services or go shopping, where you can enjoy a casual conversation with the grocery store clerk.
Losing a feeling of connection and community can negatively alter the way you view the world. Chronic loneliness can cause you to feel mistrustful or suspicious of others. Emotional pain from social isolation can activate the same stress responses in your body as physical pain, leading to chronic inflammation and poor immunity against infectious diseases.
Loneliness is also bad for your brain. It has been linked with poor cognitive function and a higher risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. The ability to pay bills, take medications properly and cook can all be affected.
If you are an older adult who lives alone, resides in a remote area, lives far away from family and friends or is physically unable to leave your home, you may be at greater risk of serious health problems due to loneliness and isolation. So here are a few tips to help you connect.
Tips for coping with loneliness
Protect yourself from the negative effects of senior loneliness and isolation by following these simple suggestions. Keep an open mind and be kind to everyone you meet. There’s no telling how big your social circle can grow.
1. Keep in contact with others.
This one is obvious but does require effort on your part. Take stock of your network of friends and activities. What can you do to make more connections?
The National Institute on Aging suggests you schedule time each day to contact family, friends and neighbors, whether that’s in person, by email, via social media, a phone call or text. Talk with people you trust and share your feelings. Plan activities to help strengthen your relationships. Invite people out for coffee or to see a movie. Send cards and letters to cherished friends.
If you do not drive, learn what transportation options are available to you. If you are homebound or live far away from family and friends, use technology to stay in touch. It’s easy to make a phone call or use internet-based tools like email, social media and video chat. If you’re not tech-savvy, sign up for an online or in-person class at a local library or community center. Many offer free courses on how to use internet-based resources.
Tell someone you’re lonely. For many older people, loneliness creeps in with the loss of a spouse, beloved family member or close friend. Admitting you’re lonely can feel like exposing weakness or vulnerability. You may try to hide your feelings to appear strong and capable to others and become more lonely in the process.
You don’t have to suffer alone. Tell your family, friends and support network what you’re going through. Explain that you’re feeling lonely and ask if they’d like to go out for a cup of coffee or dinner and some conversation. Many people don’t know what to say to someone who’s suffered a loss, so they stay away out of discomfort and assume you need space to grieve. Be open and reach out first.
Introduce yourself to neighbors. Say hello and make small talk with people you regularly see, like neighbors, bank tellers and grocery store employees. Friendliness is contagious and can brighten your mood. Even the smallest interaction can make the difference between feeling lonely and feeling good.
Volunteer and seek out senior social groups. Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose as well as opportunities to socialize with others. Attend gatherings of faith-based organizations. Find an activity you enjoy, revisit an old hobby or enroll in a class to learn something new. You’ll end up meeting people with similar interests. Studies show participating in a common goal with other people boosts your mood and improves your well-being and cognitive capabilities. Meetup groups for seniors have become popular in recent years. See what’s available in your area.
Learn about local support services. Social service agencies, nonprofits and Area Agencies on Aging all offer valuable resources for older adults. Senior centers, YMCAs and public libraries are hubs of information that also offer regular group activities.
Share your wisdom. Seek out opportunities to mentor a younger person and share your knowledge and experience. If you don’t have grandchildren, become an adopted grandparent to a younger person you know.
Re-categorize relationships. Sometimes loneliness is the result of feeling cut off from one person or a group of people. This can be due to incompatible expectations or availability. If you find you’ve tried to form a relationship but it seems one-sided, you may need to alter your expectations or “re-categorize” the relationship. Reframing a situation often makes it less painful.
2. Take care of yourself.
Exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep and pursuing hobbies and interests go a long way toward keeping you sound in mind and body, regardless of how many friends you have. You’ll be better at managing stress and fending off illness, too. Join a walking club or set a regular date to exercise with a friend. Aim for at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of physical activity a week that safely increases your heart rate.
If you experience depression or overwhelming feelings of sadness due to loneliness, speak with a mental health professional, either online or in person. Individual or group counseling can help you sort through your feelings and come up with new ways to manage your emotions.
Be your own best friend. Use time alone to get in touch with yourself on a deep level by learning to meditate. Anyone can do it, and, best of all, it can be done practically anywhere. The benefits can be far-reaching and long-lasting, too.
If you are new to meditation, try sitting quietly for three minutes and focus on something you find pleasing – like the ocean or dolphins – or anything you are grateful for. Take a few deep breaths while you focus. Notice your body and be kind to your wandering mind.
Remember, meditation is not the absence of thoughts; it is the awareness of thoughts without becoming attached to them. Visualize each new thought as a passenger boarding a ship that gently sails away. Over time you may learn a thing or two about yourself by merely watching your thoughts go by without engaging them further. Like anything worth doing well, meditation and letting go of thoughts requires practice, so go easy on yourself.
3. Be creative.
Use your time alone to paint, draw, write or play music. Experiment with different mediums such as photography, watercolor painting, clay sculpting and collage. Write your life story for your grandchildren and future generations. Organize and display cherished photos. Scrapbooking can also be a meaningful hobby.
Branch out. Trying something new not only alleviates feelings of loneliness, but it can also boost your feelings of self-sufficiency and reinforce a positive self-image. A new hobby might introduce you to a new group of people with similar interests and add variety to your routine.
Branching out might also include learning to use social media, dating apps and other online platforms for the first time to connect with others. An open mind often opens doors to friendship.
Adopt a pet. Sharing your home with a furry friend can give your life a sense of meaning, not to mention an endless source of cuddles and laughter. Local animal shelters are eager to find loving homes for dogs and cats.
Become a pet sitter. If bringing a pet permanently into your home isn’t an option, join a pet-sitting service. If you drive and you’re reasonably mobile, you can host cats, dogs and even birds in your home temporarily or travel to and from the pet’s home to care for and play with the animal while its owners are away.
At Holiday by Atria, every day is an opportunity to be social. Residents are always a few steps away from good neighbors and a variety of ways to stay active, engaged and connected. To learn more about life at Holiday, contact a community near you.