According to recent studies and the AARP, loneliness and isolation is ranked with health outcomes similar to cardiovascular and heart disease. In fact, some studies show feeling alone produces mortality outcomes equal to smoking a pack of cigarettes or being 100 lbs over weight.
Loneliness and isolation are directly related to depression and chronic illness in aging adults. Doctors and nurses are likely to notice as the person the senior regularly sees. But we’re seeing positive engagement activities is what the aging population needs. The activities don’t have to be complicated or involved. Even minimal activities such as wellness checks over the phone or computer have shown improvements in longevity.
Many seniors do not have a support network. Many children have moved for opportunity elsewhere or the senior is too isolated to begin reaching out for support. Studies link loneliness to low immunity, depression and isolation. Each of these health factors are also correlated to chronic diseases. In many cases, when a person is isolated, their bodies tend to produce inflammatory hormones that are directly linked to certain cancers and chronic diseases. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg theory.
Which came first? The isolation or the health issue? Or, was it the health issue that maybe caused the senior to isolate themselves? Whichever came first, we know humans do not do well in isolation.
As researchers dive into these different theories regarding isolation, we know seniors who make the choice to engage with others have better health outcomes overall. For instance, a study that took place in China found seniors who attended congregate meals, or ate with others, had less rates of geriatric depression than those who ate alone. This study was one of many intended to shine light on the prevalence of geriatric isolation in industrialized and developed countries.
Another study tracked seniors and their feelings of isolation over a period of time. They found those who felt more isolated had similar genetic changes in their bodies. Those changes were directly related to sickness, poor health outcomes, and even preterm death. In fact, the cellular structure of some cells in participants became consistently inflamed over the course of the study. It brings attention to the details of cellular changes in the body as our environment and surroundings change; or, in this case as seniors became more and more isolated.
How do we combat isolation as we age? We engage, engage, engage! I know it sounds cheesy. But, if we think about the population as a whole we see people usually do better in areas where there are other people. However, there are so many opportunities for people to engage in activities. I have so many ways to engage in the city I live in. And I can engage all ages of the spectrum. Young kids, adolescents, teenagers, young adults, adults and the aging population. There is something for everyone.
Some seniors move into senior communities. There are draws to the peer community aspect of these developments. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean a person will engage just because they live in a senior community. It also doesn’t mean they will feel less isolated. Many retirees who relocate into senior communities have reported feeling more isolated than ever. Why is that? One theory is maybe because they moved further from loved ones who actively engage them on a daily basis. Another theory digs deeper into the initial maternal bond that should have been formed during early childhood attachment. How do we address early childhood detachment as a person ages? Well, we teach them how to find their place in the community.
Interventions to help people over 65 engage no matter where they live have become one method of combating loneliness. We encourage those over 65 to become their own resource center. I have come across many seniors in my time working with the aging population who have more than one chronic health condition, are over the age of 85, and they are active in their communities. I’ve met these individuals at meetings, during luncheons with other seniors, at free public health forums. Each one had a common denominator. They were still engaging in their community and seeking knowledge. They are a positive influence at their senior centers. They volunteer at local community shelters, or participate in programs where they could become a surrogate grandparent to young mothers.
Rural areas are the most difficult to actively engage the aging population. Rural areas lack a bustling downtown or Main street and even some of the most basic resources. Reaching the grocery store or travelling to the doctor becomes a day’s journey. So what do we do?
We find ways to connect resources to them.
Cognitive therapy and pessimistic avoidance are some ways to begin, as some seniors may not know where to begin. Offering more community supportive services like friendly visiting and wellness checks for those living in the most rural areas have produced positive outcomes. Encouraging children of estranged parents can produce positive outcomes. If there is a way, for the child and parent to accept each other for who they are, instead of trying to change them or past circumstances, there may be hope to rebuild a relationship.
These small initiatives produce positive outcomes for everyone involved; even for those who were once isolated or felt alone.