Social Isolation: Close Doors to Risk Rather Than Connection
The need to be known and belong is nothing new. Social connectedness to others is widely considered a fundamental human need--crucial to emotional well-being, physical well-being, and even survival. Yet, isolation is a social problem that impacts as many as 24% community-dwelling older adults (65+ years). (*1)
What may not be known is that lacking social connection carries a risk that is comparable, and in many cases, exceeds that of other well-accepted risk factors, including smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution. (*2)
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions including:
high blood pressure
weakened immune system
premature death (*3)
Social isolation also opens the door to other risks including physical abuse and financial exploitation. Victims may not have an outlet to voice concerns or are secluded from the observation of others.
Social isolation that leads to loneliness may leave a person vulnerable to someone who is willing to make a connection, even if it is an abusive or exploitative relationship. A person who feels lonely is more likely to be taken advantage of by “sweetheart scams” where a person pretends to be romantically interested. Sometimes perpetrators don’t use the romance angle, but will pretend to be like a child, caregiver, or close friend. In reality, they are only looking to manipulate someone out of their income.
Older adults most at risk of social isolation include those:
Unable to access transportation
Physically impaired (e.g. mobility, hearing loss)
Not participating in social groups
Limited to shallow or turbulent relationships
Experiencing a major life transition
Confined by even a well-meaning caretaker
Caregivers need to also be aware of their own social connectedness as this could lead to their own issues of isolation that may result in expressing frustration or aggression to the one being cared for.
People engaged in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities seem to help maintain their well-being and may improve their cognitive function. (*3) Greater social connection is also associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death. (*2)
Suggestions for limiting the risks of social isolation:
Check out A Place for Mom Senior Living blog: 14 Ways to Help Seniors Avoid Isolation
Seek options for congregate meals, transportation, and caregiver support in your local area by contacting INconnect Alliance at INconnectAlliance.org or 1-800-713-9023.
Actively pursue a strong support network to avoid dependence on one person.
Be aware. Visit often and inquire about an older person’s social activity. Know their friends.
Make small changes or champion efforts to support people living with dementia to remain included, accepted and connected with their community by becoming a Dementia Friend at DementiaFriendsIndiana.org.
Thomas K M Cudjoe, David L Roth, Sarah L Szanton, Jennifer L Wolff, Cynthia M Boyd, Roland J Thorpe, The Epidemiology of Social Isolation: National Health and Aging Trends Study, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, , gby037, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gby037
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, The Potential Public Health Relevance of Social Isolation and Loneliness: Prevalence, Epidemiology, and Risk Factors, Public Policy & Aging Report, Volume 27, Issue 4, 2017, Pages 127–130, https://doi.org/10.1093/ppar/prx030
National Institute on Aging. Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks (April 23, 2019), https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks