A growing body of research reveals how this social isolation harms mental and physical health. A Brigham Young University study suggests loneliness is as deadly as smoking or obesity, while researchers at the University of Chicago note blood pressure and stress levels are “significantly higher” in lonely people, especially seniors. Isolation is also linked with depression, illness, and higher early mortality rates, studies show. If you’re concerned your loved one is feeling lonely, there are several ways to help.
Some alone time is a good thing. Has your loved one always enjoyed solitary activities, like reading or watching classic movies? If so, take the time to understand their interests and help them engage in activities they’re comfortable with. They may not want a more active social calendar than what they appreciated in their younger years.
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“Social isolation and loneliness are real experiences … and we need to do all we can to keep them at bay or deal with them when they happen,” says Bella DePaulo, a social scientist and visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But we should be careful not to impose on our parents our own standards for what counts as enough socializing.”
Energy levels change as people age. A reduced metabolism, lower appetite, and prescription drug side effects take their toll. Even if your mom was a social butterfly in her prime, consider how a lower-energy lifestyle will affect her desire to interact.
Local friends, family, and neighbors may be happy to stop by. Sometimes, they just need to be asked. Even a few hours with an in-home caregiver, housekeeper, or cook a week can help.
A roommate can be a great investment if they have extra space. Not only does it reduce housing costs, but the daily interactions can reduce isolation. There are roommate-matching agencies that perform background checks and pair people with common interests and lifestyles. Some colleges, like NYU, even have programs in which students help out around the house in exchange for room and board.
Volunteer opportunities are one way to help the community and make new friends. Teaching children to read, communal gardening, and being a docent at local art museums are all great options for aging individuals who still have mobility. Many local service and philanthropic clubs offer opportunities for seniors as well.
Senior centers have a wide variety of courses tailored toward the elderly, from singing to water aerobics. Most senior living communities will also bring in experts and volunteers to teach new skills, from chair yoga to sculpting. Even loved ones who are bedridden or in memory care facilities can pursue new interests through special programming.
Tech-savvy seniors can keep in touch using cell phones to talk with friends, Zoom to video-chat with grandkids, and virtual home assistants like Alexa to share news or even jokes. These devices minimize isolation and facilitate connection.
Online community services like Virtual Senior Center and 65+ chat rooms can be excellent places for seniors to meet new friends who are dealing with the same concerns they are, air frustrations, and learn new technology without having to leave the house.
The Internet is full of resources, from videos of towns your loved one always wanted to visit to seminar-style classes. MOOCs, or “Massive Open Online Courses”, offer classes by top-notch instructors on a vast array of topics, perfect for seniors who want to keep learning but are unable to attend physical classes. Practical options, like will-writing and financial management, are offered alongside everything from introductory Mandarin to web developing.
Pet therapy is medicinal. Just a short time bonding with an animal sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, lowering levels of the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol, and increasing production of the feel-good hormone serotonin, according to the National Institutes of Health. The result: heart rate, blood pressure and stress levels immediately drop. Over the long term, pet and human interactions can lower cholesterol levels, fight depression, and may even help protect against heart disease and stroke.
It’s important your loved one is able to properly care for his/her pet. Calm cats can be ideal for less-mobile individuals, while dogs are great companions for those who still want to spend time walking outside or have a fenced-in yard.
Many shelters have volunteer opportunities for animal lovers who can’t care full time for a pet, and some home-care companies will bring well-behaved therapy dogs to appointments.
It’s harder to be lonely surrounded by neighbors, friends, and caretakers. Most independent and assisted living communities boast amenities like restaurant-style dining, weekly happy hours, and space for interaction. Many also offer transportation to local stores and theaters, and provide outdoor activities like gardening as well as resident events.
Look for programs aimed at preventing loneliness.Memory care facilities have games and multisensory experiences tailored to residents with dementia to stop loneliness. Speak to a prospective community’s activity director and check out these senior living community tour tips to ensure your loved one will have the interaction they need.
Request a referral to a professional who specializes in geriatric psychology at your loved one’s next doctor’s visit. Therapy has been proven to delay the progress of dementia, alleviate health concerns, and improve overall well-being. If you’re concerned your loved one’s loneliness has turned into depression, talk with them about the benefits of therapy.
Claire Samuels is a content writer at A Place for Mom. She worked with senior living communities throughout the Midwest before pivoting to writing. She’s passionate about sharing ways of living well at any age.