Active retirement, group of three old male friends talking and laughing on bench in public park

How to Help Fight Loneliness as we Age

How can it be that in a society that offers instant communication with almost anyone almost anywhere, we can be lonelier than ever before? Current research indicates that Americans of all age groups suffer with the pain of loneliness, but senior citizens experience the worst effects of the problem.

Nearly 30 percent of Americans over the age of 65 live alone, according to the Administration on Aging, and for women in that age group, the percentage is closer to 50 percent. A study by University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) researchers found that 43 percent of seniors said they feel lonely on a regular basis.

These feelings of isolation have an impact on health. For example, that UCSF study revealed that lonely seniors were 59 percent more likely to experience mental and physical decline than their study counterparts who felt less isolated.

Swedish researchers found that coronary bypass patients who indicated they felt lonely had a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than other patients did one month after surgery. More importantly, five years later, the “lonely” patients were twice as likely to have died.

Loneliness may also increase the chances of developing dementia. A three-year Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry of more than 2,000 healthy, dementia-free seniors found that 13 percent of study participants who reported feelings of loneliness developed dementia by the end of the three years, as compared with only 6 percent of those who had a strong social network. With U.S. Census projections showing that by the year 2030, more than 20 percent of U.S. residents will be age 65 and over, as compared with 13 percent in 2010 and 9.8 percent in 1970, loneliness and isolation is a problem we all must learn more about.

Why does loneliness increase as we age? For many seniors, the answer is simple – they are living alone. Whether they live in their own homes or in assisted living facilities, many seniors no longer live with spouses or other family members. As a result, it can become more difficult for them to engage in deep, meaningful conversations with others.

Many seniors feel this loss of close family relationships and of former work and community activities in an acute way. One of the biggest problems with loneliness is that it feeds upon itself. Many people experiencing feelings of isolation turn further inward and tend to shy away from seeking out new social opportunities.The good news is that there are clear steps you or your loved one can take to combat loneliness.

Become a better listener. We all have experienced times when we feel lonely even when we are surrounded by a group of people. Having people around us does not mean we are connecting with them. For feelings of loneliness to improve, real conversations and empathy must take place.

Encourage your elderly loved one to share his or her feelings. Take the time to ask open-ended questions and then to listen closely to the

responses you get. Ask about their hobbies and interests. After listening carefully, ask related follow-up questions.

If you are experiencing loneliness yourself, you can use this same strategy with others. Instead of falling back on small talk about the weather or current events with your caregiver or with your dining companions, dig deeper. People love to talk about themselves when they have the opportunity. You will be surprised at the connections you will form.

Develop interests. Now that you know more about what your loved one cares about, it is time build upon that knowledge. Look for ways you can engage the senior with their areas of expertise.

If they love gardening but are limited in mobility, perhaps you can help them set up a terrarium or a windowsill herb garden. If they love photography, for another example, look for information on photography clubs in your community. Then accompany him or her to the first meeting or two.

This same strategy can be used in a variety of ways. Many non-profit organizations – from after-school children’s programs, to soup kitchens, to theaters – welcome senior volunteers. Your loved one will be involved again in something they enjoy, and they will have the added benefit of meeting new people.

Connect the generations. There is nothing like spending time with a child to take away loneliness. Seniors have so much to offer kids and teens in the way of skills and life experiences. Look for opportunities to get your loved one in touch with your younger relatives and with kids in the community.

If grandchildren do not live nearby, you could assist your loved one with Skype calls. Encourage your other family members to phone and to stop by to visit senior relatives. Tell them even a 20-minute conversation a few times a month can make a big difference in a lonely person’s life.

Adopt a pet. Many studies show that owning and caring for a pet can increase the quality of life. Pets provide companionship, and taking care of a pet helps a lonely person feel needed and wanted.

Pets can be dogs, cats or even gerbils or fish, depending on your loved one’s lifestyle and living situation.

Research by the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine found that people who own pets tend to have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Owning a pet also helps reduce stress levels and blood pressure levels.

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