20 Facts about Senior Isolation That Will Stun You
Last Updated: November 15, 2019
Feelings of loneliness and isolation can lead to serious health consequences. Understanding the causes and risk factors for senior isolation can help us prevent it.
Nobody relishes the prospect of aging alone. A spouse, family member or friend help people laugh at the ridiculous parts of aging and provide support through the difficult times. Unfortunately, many American seniors age this way. As the baby boomer generation crosses the over-65 threshold, it continues to grow. However, many of our aging loved ones are still feeling alone in the crowd.
Statistics on Senior Isolation
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone at the time of the census. As people get older, their likelihood of living alone increases. The AARP reports that more and more older adults do not have children. That means that there are fewer family members to provide company and care as those adults become seniors.
While living alone does not inevitably lead to social isolation, it can certainly be a contributing factor. Another factor to consider is how often seniors engage in social activities.
Statistics Canada reports that 80% of Canadian seniors participate in one or more social activities per month, which leaves out the remaining one-fifth of seniors.
Social contacts tend to decrease as we age for reasons such as retirement, the death of friends and family, or lack of mobility. Regardless of the causes of senior isolation, the consequences can be alarming and detrimental. Additionally, perceived social isolation — the feeling that you are lonely — is a struggle for many older people. Fortunately, research regarding the risks, causes, and prevention of loneliness in seniors have provided insight on this matter for the past couple of decades.
How Many Seniors Face Isolation and Loneliness in Los Angeles?
Los Angeles is a huge city, with a metropolitan area covering a massive 4,850 square miles and a wider combined statistical area of 33,954 square miles. These metrics make L.A. the largest metropolitan region in the United States by land area. California’s senior population also happens to be the fastest-growing population among the states. The census predicts that the number of Californians aged 65 and older is anticipated to climb by 2.1 million by 2026, which is 840 times the rate of growth of Californians younger than 25.1 A vast majority of those older adults live in Los Angeles.
Of the four million residents in Los Angeles, approximately 395,000 are 65 years of age or older. By 2025, that number will be more than half a million. In another decade, the senior population will account for one-quarter of L.A. residents.2 Though it is difficult to say how many of those seniors are lonely, a Think Healthy LA survey reveals that as few as 6.4% to as many as 59.6% of seniors live alone throughout the Los Angeles neighborhoods. The median number of senior individuals who live alone is 18.3%.3 Approximately one-third of all seniors living alone reportedly live in poverty, have poor health or both.
Why Loneliness Can Be Fatal for Seniors
Loneliness in seniors may be fatal. A 2012 study that tracked over 6,500 elderly men and women over a seven-year period in the United Kingdom reported that the lack of social contact leads to an early death, regardless of participants’ underlying health issues.4 One author of the study noted that though lonely seniors die of the usual causes, isolation is one of the main risk factors that worsen pre-existing conditions.
The U.K. study is not the first of its kind, and its results indicate nothing new. When over 1,600 adults over the age of 60 in the U.S. were asked how often they felt lonely or excluded, 43% said often or some of the time. The researchers then tracked those same adults over six years, during which they noted no significant changes in feelings of loneliness. However, the adults who previously reported feeling lonely experienced a significant decline in their health and ability to function. Nearly 25% of adults who reported feeling lonely also reported that they had trouble carrying out activities of daily living. Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) include bathing, dressing, grooming, eating and getting in and out of bed. Only 12.5% of adults who were not lonely reported such declines.5 An even earlier study from 1992 followed 2,000 heart patients. This study revealed that relative mortality rates more than tripled among adults who had neither a confidant nor partner, compared to those who had one, the other, or both.
But what is the connection between loneliness, isolation and premature death? Research suggests that isolation and loneliness are linked to high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and early death.
The director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and author of the 2012 U.K. study suggests that the connection may have something to do with poor lifestyle choices.6 Those who are lonely are more likely to smoke and eat poorly. As such, lonely people are prone to inactivity, which further exacerbates health problems. Conversely, those who partake in meaningful, productive activities with others are generally happier, have a sense of purpose and tend to live longer. Social activities appear to play a vital role in both mental and physical health and well-being.
What Percent of US Seniors in Nursing Homes Experience Loneliness?
A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that feeling lonely does not correlate to living alone. 43% of all seniors surveyed reported that they felt lonely, yet only 18% of those seniors lived alone. The remaining 25% lived in nursing homes or received in-home care.
Loneliness in nursing homes appears to be strikingly common. A 2011 study of 2,072 nursing home residents in Helsinki, Finland, showed that 9% of nursing home residents suffered from chronic loneliness. Similarly, more than one-quarter experienced loneliness “sometimes.” Those who reported any feelings of loneliness also showed signs of mobility problems, disability, poor self-rated health, cognitive impairment and depression.7
How to Combat Loneliness in Seniors
Fighting the loneliness epidemic amongst seniors does not have to be difficult. When both caregivers and family members are committed to engaging in meaningful interactions with seniors, it’s relatively easy to keep loneliness at bay. Some things you can start doing today to ensure loneliness does not negatively impact your elderly loved one’s health are as follows:
- Visit your loved one as often as you can. When having a conversation, really listen to what he or she has to say.
- Take your elderly parent or grandparent out for lunch, dinner, Sunday church service, a movie, out to visit friends or anywhere else you think he or she might enjoy going. Most nursing home residents don’t want to be there all day.
- When you can’t visit, call and write often.
- Ask to participate in nursing home activities with them. If your loved one has yet to attend any, volunteer to accompany them to the first one. Your company will help him or her feel comfortable.
- Let your elderly family member teach you something. Older individuals love to pass on their knowledge, so give them an outlet to do so.
Here Are 20 Facts About Senior Isolation To Help You Stay Informed:
1. Senior isolation increases the risk of mortality.
According to a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. One possible explanation: “People who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.” Researchers state that efforts to reduce isolation are the key to addressing the issue of mortality.
2. Feelings of loneliness can negatively affect both physical and mental health.
Researchers using data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project state that regardless of the reason behind a person’s isolation, seniors who feel lonely and isolated are more likely to report also having poor physical and/or mental health.
Encouraging social connections among seniors through senior centers and meal delivery programs is one way to combat subjective feelings of isolation.
3. Perceived loneliness contributes to cognitive decline and risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying social isolation for 30 years. One frightening finding is that feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline. Cacioppo states “we evolved to be a social species, it’s hard-wired into our brains, and when we don’t meet that need, it can have physical and neurological effects.”
4. Social isolation makes seniors more vulnerable to elder abuse.
Many studies show a connection between social isolation and higher rates of elder abuse, reports the National Center on Elder Abuse. Researchers aren’t certain whether isolated adults are more likely to fall victim to abuse, or are a result of abusers attempting to isolate the elders from others to minimize risk of discovery.
A critical strategy for reducing elder abuse is speaking up. This is because abuse, neglect and exploitation often go unreported. Maintaining connections with senior loved ones helps ensure their safety.
5. LGBTQ seniors are much more likely to be socially isolated.
LGBTQ seniors are twice as likely to live alone, according to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Additionally, they are more likely to be single, more likely to be estranged from their biological families, and they are less likely to have children.
Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination may be major roadblocks to support LGBTQ seniors. However, there are increasingly more community groups and online resources devoted to helping these elders avoid isolation.
6. Social isolation in seniors is linked to long-term illness.
In the PNAS study previously mentioned, illnesses and conditions such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and depression were associated with social isolation. Ensuring adequate care for our loved ones’ illnesses can help prevent this isolation.
For homebound seniors, phone calls and visits are a critical part of connecting with loved ones. Others may find that moving to an assisted living community addresses both issues — the need for ongoing care and the desire for companionship.
7. Loneliness in seniors is a major risk factor for depression.
Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that feeling lonely is associated with more depressive symptoms in both middle-aged and older adults. It is critical to recognize those feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression and seeking treatment. This is important whether if it is on your behalf or for the sake of a loved one.
8. Loneliness causes high blood pressure.
A study in Psychology and Aging indicated a direct relationship between loneliness in older adults and increases in systolic blood pressure over the course of 4 years. These increases were independent of race, ethnicity, gender, and other possible contributing factors. Researchers suggest that the early interventions for loneliness may be key to preventing both the isolation and associated health risks.
9. Socially isolated seniors are more pessimistic about the future.
According to the National Council on Aging, socially isolated seniors are more likely to predict their quality of life will get worse over the next five to 10 years, are more concerned about needing help from community programs as they get older, and are more likely to express concerns about aging in place. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) says community-based programs and services are critical in helping ward off potential problems and improving the quality of life for older people.
10. Physical and geographic isolation often leads to social isolation.
“One in six seniors living alone in the United States faces physical, cultural, and/or geographical barriers that isolate them from their peers and communities,” reports the National Council on Aging. “This isolation can prevent them from receiving benefits and services that can improve their economic security and their ability to live healthy, independent lives.” Referring isolated older adults to senior centers, activity programs and transportation services can go a long way toward creating valuable connections and reducing isolation.
11. Isolated seniors are more likely to need long-term care.
According to a report from the Children’s, Women’s and Seniors Health Branch, British Columbia Ministry of Health, loneliness and social isolation are major predictors of seniors who receive home care and who live in nursing homes.
The positive angle of these findings are that using long-term health care services can in itself connect seniors with much-needed support. For seniors living in rural areas, entering a care facility may provide companionship and social contact.
12. Loss of a spouse is a major risk factor for loneliness and isolation.
Losing a spouse is an event that becomes more common as people enter older age. The loss of a spouse has been shown by numerous studies to increase seniors’ vulnerability to emotional and social isolation, says the same report from the British Columbia Ministry of Health. Besides the loneliness brought on by bereavement, the loss of a partner may also mean the loss of social interactions that were facilitated by being part of a couple. Ensuring seniors have access to family and friendship support can help alleviate this loneliness.
13. Transportation challenges can lead to social isolation.
Having access to adequate public transportation or other senior transportation services is key to seniors’ accessing programs and resources, as well as their feelings of connectedness and independence.
According to the AARP, “life expectancy exceeds safe driving expectancy after age 70 by about six years for men and 10 years for women.” Yet, 41% of seniors do not feel that the transportation support in their community is adequate, says the NCOA.
14. Caregivers of the elderly are also at risk for social isolation.
Whether you are caring for a parent, spouse or other relative, being a family caregiver is an enormous responsibility. When that person has Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or a physical impairment, the caregiver may feel even less able to set aside their caregiving duties to attend social events that they previously enjoyed. This can trigger loneliness and depression. Seeking support, caring for yourself, and even looking for temporary respite care can help ward off caregiver loneliness and restore your sense of connection.
15. Loneliness can be contagious.
Studies have found that loneliness tends to spread from person to person due to negative social interactions and other factors. In other words, when one person is lonely, that loneliness is more likely to spread to friends or contacts of the lonely individual. Additionally, people tend to further isolate others who are lonely because we have evolved to avoid threats to our social cohesion.
Simply telling seniors to engage in more social activities may not be enough. Considering our loved ones’ needs as individuals is a valuable first step to figuring out how to prevent or combat isolation.
16. Lonely people are more likely to engage in unhealthy behavior.
A study using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) found that people who are socially isolated or lonely are also more likely to report risky health behaviors such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, and smoking. Conversely, social support can help encourage seniors to eat well, exercise, and live healthy lifestyles.
Living in a community situation can be an effective barrier to loneliness because most senior communities specifically promote wellness through diet and exercise programs.
17. Volunteering can reduce social isolation and loneliness in seniors.
We all know that volunteering is a rewarding activity, and seniors have a unique skill set and oodles of life experience to contribute to their communities. Volunteering can also boost longevity and contribute to mental health and well-being. Additionally, volunteering ensures that seniors have a source of social connection. There are plenty of opportunities tailor-made for seniors interested in volunteering.
18. Feeling isolated? Take a class.
A review of studies looking at various types of interventions on senior loneliness found that the most effective programs for combating isolation had an educational or training component. For instance, classes on health-related topics, computer training, or exercise classes are all programs to combat senior loneliness.
19. Technology can help senior isolation — but not always.
Even though modern technology provides us with numerous ways to keep in touch, sometimes the result is that we feel lonelier than ever. Health Quality Ontario states that the key to finding technological interventions that really do help is to match those interventions to the specific needs of individual seniors.
For seniors with hearing loss, simply providing a hearing aid can improve communication and reduce loneliness. Phone contact and Web-based support programs were less consistent in their effectiveness, but for some, may provide a lifeline.
20. Physical activity reduces senior isolation.
Group exercise programs are a wonderfully effective way to reduce isolation and loneliness in seniors. Of course, they also have the added benefit of being great for physical and mental health. In one study, discussed by Health Quality Ontario, seniors reported greater well-being regardless of whether the activity was aerobic or lower-impact, such as stretching. Even walking with a friend or a pet has shown benefits for seniors and serve as an opportunity for interactions with other pet owners.
Senior isolation is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Getting the facts can help us prevent loneliness in our senior loved ones as they adjust to the changes of aging.
Have you or a loved one suffered from loneliness or social isolation during the aging process? What, in your opinion, is the most helpful intervention for reducing isolation? Join the discussion in the comments below.
1 Californias senior population is growing faster than any other age group. How the next governor responds is crucial. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/projects/la-pol-ca-next-california-demographics/.
2Los Angeles, California Population 2019. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/los-angeles-population/.
3Angeles, L. (n.d.). People 65 Living Alone. Retrieved from https://www.thinkhealthla.org/indicators/index/view?indicatorId=342&localeTypeId=39.
4Social isolation increases risk of early death, study finds. (2013, March 26). Retrieved from https://www.latimes.com/science/la-xpm-2013-mar-26-la-sci-social-isolation-health-20130326-story.html.
5Dennis, H. (2017, August 28). Successful Aging: Loneliness can affect health of seniors. Retrieved from https://www.dailynews.com/2013/10/28/successful-aging-loneliness-can-affect-health-of-seniors/.
6Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks.
7LONELINESS IN NURSING HOMES AND ASSISTED LIVING FACILITIES: PREVALENCE, ASSOCIATED FACTORS AND PROGNOSIS. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.jnursinghomeresearch.com/919-loneliness-in-nursing-homes-and-assisted-living-facilities-prevalence-associated-factors-and-prognosis.html.
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