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Senior Loneliness: Take Initiative to Reconnect

Lonely elderly man looking at camera.
The chance of becoming lonely is more likely to be caused by changes in friendship networks than changes in family networks. Research also shows that as people become lonely, they become less trustful of others.

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November 15, 2011

Seniors might have to take the initiative to overcome lack of companionship by finding the right time to connect with their families or by seeking other outlets for friendship. Remember that Home Instead Senior Care is always there as well, providing companionship and support.

Q. I’m a 75-year-old widow who is very lonely because my family seldom contacts me. Is this common and what can I do to encourage more interaction with my loved ones?

Today’s busy families often have difficulties staying in touch with their loved ones. In fact, in a national survey conducted for Home Instead Senior Care®, the company’s CAREGiversSM reported less than half (45.8 percent) of their clients received a face-to-face visit from a friend or family member during a typical week. And only about one-quarter (27 percent) had daily face-to-face contact with a family member.

Furthermore, the survey revealed fewer than half (46.8 percent) received phone calls from friends or family during a typical week and less than one-quarter (21.2 percent) received multiple calls from friends and family.

Working parents with children are stressed just trying to balance work, family and other obligations. Have you let your family know that you would like to hear more from them? If you live in the same town or nearby, why not ask if you could visit? With family members living a distance away, that might be more of a challenge. Try to find a time during the week when you know your family will be home, and make a point of calling then.

Most families today are accustomed to communicating through email. Many cities have places – such as community colleges or high schools – to teach you how to use a computer and email. If you’re not comfortable with computers, there’s always the more traditional way of communicating through handwritten letters. If you need help writing letters, contact your local church or Area Agency on Aging to find volunteers who could help.

The important thing is to remedy your loneliness. Isolation can keep you from forming meaningful relationships, and it also can spread, according to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego and Harvard. A team of scholars found that lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others. Gradually over time, a group of lonely, disconnected people moves to the fringes of social networks.

“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, leader of the study and one of the nation’s leading scholars of loneliness. “On the periphery, people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

Before those relationships are severed, they transmit feelings of loneliness to their remaining friends, who also become lonely. Because loneliness is associated with a variety of mental and physical diseases that can shorten life, Cacioppo said, it is important for people to recognize loneliness and help those people connect with their social group before the lonely individuals move to the edges.

The chance of becoming lonely is more likely to be caused by changes in friendship networks than changes in family networks. Research also shows that as people become lonely, they become less trustful of others, and a cycle develops that makes it harder for them to form friendships.

Try to cultivate more interaction with others, which could lead to meaningful friendships and relationships. While you’re trying to reconnect with your family, it sounds as if you would benefit from companionship elsewhere in your community. Consider joining a senior club, having some of your meals at the senior center or volunteering in your community.

Or call your local Home Instead Senior Care office, which can match you with a CAREGiver of similar interests who could provide companionship as well as assistance in communicating with your loved ones. CAREGivers are screened, trained, bonded and insured, and many are seniors themselves. Call today to learn more.

For more about the study, “Alone in the Crowd,” see
http://jhfowler.ucsd.edu/alone_in_the_crowd.pdf.

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