Although loneliness may not seem like a significant issue, lack of social contact can have a seriously detrimental effect on the emotional and physical health of older adults, who are often most susceptible to isolation.
Many elders live alone – almost half of women age 75 or older live by themselves, according to the Administration on Aging. It’s a fact of life that as people grow older, they will face an increased likelihood of losing close friends, relatives, and spouses. However, it’s not only death that may remove people from their life. Sometimes, a senior’s adult children have moved away, which can compound their isolation.
In addition, older adults are usually no longer in the workforce, which cuts down on their opportunities for social interaction. They may also have health problems that can make it difficult for them to go out and take part in their community.
Social Contact Can Benefit a Senior's Health
Studies have shown a strong connection between social interaction and the mental and physical well being of seniors. For instance, research shows that consistent human contact can reduce stress as well as the risk of depression, which occurs in more than two million of the 34 million seniors in the USA, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
As well, social interaction can even decrease the risk of dementia, a common disorder in older adults (Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, affects one in nine seniors). As this 2009 study by the American Academy of Neurology, on the relationship between dementia, stress, and socialization, discovered: “People who are socially active and not easily stressed may be less likely to develop dementia.” This alone exemplifies how crucial it is to have regular social interaction as often as possible.
It may surprise you to learn that socialization can also have a significant effect on physical health. Studies have found that consistent socialization can lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and reduce physical pain. As well, older adults, who as a group are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, often eat more — and eat healthier — when they dine in the company of others.
Increasing Social Connections
Sometimes all a senior needs is a gentle encouragement to be more socially engaged. With a little nudging, they will sign up for courses, attend a senior center, or volunteer. These are all excellent ways to meet more people.
Romantic relationships are also a factor that can contribute to increased social connections. Engaging in new romantic relationships after the death of a spouse can be difficult, but forming these connections can have a big impact on a senior’s health. While a social group may cancel meetings, or a volunteer opportunity may become difficult to participate in due to health concerns, engagements with a romantic partner can become a consistent part of a senior’s life. By participating in this type of relationship, people have a built-in support system and partner with whom they can try new things, take classes, or just enjoy their daily lives with.
However, when seniors are frail, have mobility problems, or suffer from dementia or depression, sometimes a little more than increased social interaction is needed. In cases like this, a senior living community is often a great solution. Not only do residents have the option of eating all their meals with other residents, they have engaging social and recreational activities to choose from, as well as warm and caring staff members to interact with.
It’s important to keep tabs on the amount of social stimulation your loved one is receiving. If you suspect there are not enough people in their world, talk with them about ways to increase social contact, and give them the encouragement they might need. Taking the right steps could transform their quality of life.