Growing older comes with many transitions, some of which can leave individuals feeling lonely. Whether it’s moving to a new community, transitioning to a new area to live closer to family or staying behind while others move, elders can become isolated in small increments without realizing how limited their social lives have become.
If you have a loved one who is trending toward isolation, take heed. Loneliness kills. Friendships add years to life.
Socializing gives us a decided “survival advantage,” both mentally and physically. Data has shown individuals with rich social networks live at least 1.6 years longer than their peers. Conversely, those experiencing social isolation might not live as long or be as healthy as those who are social.
Socializing is as important as proper nutrition and exercise for health.
Recent research confirms this. A 2014 study in Amsterdam documented the effects of loneliness and social isolation on the elderly and their increased risk for dementia. A second example is a study by John Cacioppo, a renowned social psychologist at University of Chicago who spent more than 20 years studying the causes and effects of loneliness.
In one of the last interviews before his passing, Cacioppo asserted that loneliness could be tied to hardening of the arteries, inflammation in the body and problems with learning and memory.
Be sensitive to any indication that your loved one’s social network is unraveling.
If you see an elder heading toward isolation, you can help…
#1. Stay in touch. Don’t just wait for holidays or family events to see, hear and talk with your older loved ones. Create opportunities to stay connected. In that way, you can detect subtle changes and not find that you need to intervene long after there are simple solutions to the effects of isolation. By facing issues early in their development, you can find solutions that will forestall future, more severe, problems.
For example, if you detect loneliness early on, you can determine if the issue is transportation and investigate ways of getting the elder to social settings. Once long-term isolation sets in, there can be cognitive failure or a lack of self-confidence that deters such practical approaches.
#2 Help them hear better and comfortably when using the telephone. The most accessible pipeline for communication is the telephone. Easy-to-see numbers on age-friendly phones like Jitter Bug and VTech CareLine, and enhanced audio phones like Loud & Clear make connecting easy and integrated with your daily activities. If they have computers or smartphones, help them to learn to use one of the video-calling technologies so they can see people as well as hear them. And make sure they check their hearing to know if special equipment or any other adjustments needs to be made.
#2. Help them use e-mail and surf the web. Generations Online and Senior Net are dedicated to simplifying the Internet and e-mail for seniors. You don’t need any prior computer experience to learn. The training works with any computer, and classes are available for free at many senior centers.
There are computers designed for the geriatric, and I have investigated all of them. They are ever-evolving. Check out the list compiled by Great Senior Living.
If your senior is worried about the cost of buying a new computer the list of software that can help transform an old device into a senior-friendly computer might make the task more manageable because it’s more cost-effective and welcome by the senior.
If all fails and the elder cannot use a computer even with training, consider remote computing. See You Link is the software leader when it comes to technology that allows you to do computer functions for another person, no matter where in the world each of you is. It is available in eight languages and works with virtually any computer.
#3. Help them maintain friendships and find new ones. While new friends aren’t the same as old ones, encourage them to attend senior-center events and lifelong learning classes, and help with transportation. Find out about LINK and other free services through your local Area on Aging.
Private firms also offer accessible cars. I was a guest of the White House in 2015 when President Obama spoke at the Washington Conference on Aging. He brought representatives from Uber to explain their new assisted van initiative. Check out these private pay firms and senior-center approved drivers.
If cost is an issue, consider Share the Care, a group of volunteer helpers who can take over tasks like driving. And look at the AARP Age-Friendly Community site to see what accommodations are in the elder’s area, if any, for transportation.
#4. Plan to stay connected. If your loved one is far away, you can help keep him or her on a social track as they age. A great idea is to create a calendar with them to write down when they will make calls, write letters and send e-mails. A good goal might be one friendly outreach a day. If they can afford it, you can help them plan visits to friends and family.
#5. Become a “friend detective,” and help them search for old friends. Is there a friend from high school who they haven’t contacted in years? Social networks, like Facebook, can make reconnecting easy and fun. With a little help from you, they can relive old memories and create new ones. There are many beautiful stories of the thrill of reconnecting with lost friends.
A remarkable experiment with Holocaust survivors using See You Link in the UK proved that even the least technology-savvy elders over 90 could learn to video call and post on social media when the motivation is communication with friends and family. These efforts are not just fun—they are essential to making socializing a habit and are crucial for good health.
Now that you have helped others add lifelong friendships to their social goals, do it for yourself. Often the pressures of family, children, money and career keep you so busy that there is little time for deep connections of your own. Sure, you are surrounded by people, but if most of them are your coworkers, they will disappear after retirement or sooner.
If you are a boomer, be realistic. As young and hip as you view yourself to be, don’t be ageist and avoid senior centers because you think they are for “old people.” Senior centers have become vibrant centers of activities, travel and educational programs of all kinds, including planned community activities.
Besides missing out on opportunities to meet people and have fun, resistance to organized ways of meeting others can shift you into loneliness without your awareness. Ironically this can be compounded for couples, who have each other until one passes and the other realizes they have not cultivated lasting friendships.
Start looking at socializing as a health habit. It will add years and joy to your life and to that of your loved ones.
And before we leave the subject of older-age isolation, never forget your secret weapon—grandchildren and young people. Elders, like all of us, need a purpose to communicate. One great motivator is to help others, especially the younger generation. Check out GEN2GEN and help the youngsters and oldsters in your life get involved. It may not take as much effort as you think. The rewards are many for all.