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Social isolation is a growing epidemic in society that can have dire physical, mental and emotional consequences. The percentage of adults who say they are lonely has doubled since the 1980’s from 20% to 40%. Twenty nine (29%) percent of adults 65+ live alone and half of those over 85 do putting them at greater risk. In rural areas like ours social isolation is compounded by the fact that many live in areas where the closest neighbor is a mile away. As people age and become unable to drive or access transportation our ability to interact with others is further diminished. People suffering from depression and anxiety and those who are in poor physical health are also more likely to feel lonely.
New research tells us that social separation is bad for our health. People with less social connection have disrupted sleep, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. One study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. Other studies found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.
The loneliness of older adults has different roots from those who are younger often resulting from family members moving away and close friends passing away. As one senior puts it, “Your world dies before you do.” We retire from a job, friends move away or health issues convince us to eliminate or restrict driving. When changes like these occur, we may not fully realize how they will affect our ability to stay connected and engaged and how much that can impact our overall health and well-being. We need social connection to thrive—no matter our age.
The good news is that with greater awareness, we can take steps to maintain and strengthen our ties to family and friends, expand our social circles and become more involved in the community around us. Having a social network that meets our needs means different things to each of us. We hope that the information provided below will motivate you to evaluate your situation and, if needed, take action to strengthen the relationships that matter the most to you. And don’t forget—when you open up your world to new people, sharing your time, talents and wisdom, it’s a win-win for you and your entire community.
Experts say that ideally neighborhoods and communities would keep an eye out for older people and take steps to reduce social isolation. But these days in America it seems you need an excuse to knock on a neighbor’s door. How do we break down this barrier to ensure people stay connected?
Here are some actions you may want to consider taking:
• Nurture and strengthen existing relationships; invite people over for coffee or call them to suggest a trip to a museum or to see a movie. • Religious older people should be encouraged to continue regular attendance at services and younger churchgoers can help by providing ride sharing to those unable to drive • Don’t let being a non-driver stop you from staying active. Find out about your transportation options (call CARTS or help an older adult get started with Uber or Lyft). • Schedule a time each day to call a friend or visit someone. • Meet your neighbors—young and old. • Use social media like Facebook to stay in touch with long-distance friends if you don’t know how call NY Connects for a computer training class. • Stay physically active and include group exercise in the mix, like joining the mall walking club (Call NY Connects about low or no cost exercise opportunities in our county). • Take a class to learn something new and, at the same time, expand your circle of friends (OFA is rolling out the Aging Mastery Program this fall and NY Connects can assist with other adult leaning opportunities). • Revisit an old hobby you’ve set aside or join a senior club and find others who share your interests. • Become a volunteer to deepen your sense of purpose and participate in community activities and events. • Get involved in your community by taking on a cause, such as making your community more age-friendly.
AARP has launched “CONNECT2AFFECT”, an online resource featuring tools and information to help evaluate your isolation risk, reach out to others who may be feeling lonely and disengaged and find practical ways to reconnect to community. It is for individuals, families and the community at large. Learn more at connect2affect.org. For more information on anything presented in this article contact our NY Connect Helpline at 753-4582, 363-4582 or 661-7582. Office for the Aging is here to help you. Thank you to the NY Times article on “How social isolation is killing us” by Dhruv Khullar and N4A for the content provided in this article.