Loneliness and Isolation in Later Years – Are We Doing Enough?

Author: Jane Sandwood, freelance writer

As we get older, life presents an evolving array of new challenges, both to individuals themselves and to their families. With the wide range of resources for support in every area from dementia care to cancer support, it is easy to assume we have got it covered. Yet the needs of the elderly extend far beyond straightforward medical provision.

Social isolation is a larger problem than many of us fully realize. It is something that is attracting increasing attention over in the UK, where there are a number of well-publicized social isolation campaigns for everyone to play a greater role in reducing loneliness among the senior members of the community.  And in Canada, the National Council of Seniors has stated that the subject of social isolation is a priority area. But what about here in the US? Is there more we could do?

The effects of social isolation

According to an article in Forbes magazine, one in six over 65s suffer from feelings of isolation. That equates to some seven and a half million Americans – or if you prefer, the populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston added together.

The consequences of loneliness and social isolation can be significant, both physically and mentally. An analysis of some 148 studies that focused on the correlation between social isolation and mortality came up with compelling evidence that the presence of one or more social relationships was related to a reduced risk of mortality. This was the basis of the oft-cited statistic that social isolation can have as damaging an effect as a 15-a-day cigarette habit.

Those who are lonely are also more likely to develop heart problems, diabetes, and impaired mobility. In part, this is due to the “use it or lose it” aspect, whereby those with little reason to get out and about lead more sedentary lifestyles.

Reducing social isolation

So what can we do to mitigate the problem? It is simplistic to say it is all about calling our elders up on the phone or visiting for a cup of coffee twice a week, although these certainly help. However, a more robust solution is to empower the elderly to get out more and to make them aware of the options that are available to lead a rewarding social life in later years.

It is easily said but needs dedication and commitment to achieve. But the efforts that are being made in the UK show just how much is possible if we put our minds to it.

There are a number of resources available throughout the United States and these are steadily growing, as awareness of the issues surrounding social isolation in seniors increases. For example, Connect2Affect is an organization that has spearheaded a number of initiatives across the States and is backed by the AARP Foundation. If you have loved ones who could benefit from one of these projects, why not check the Connect2Affect website to find out what is going on in your area to help address this concern.