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Social Isolation: Loneliness Could be Deadly

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"I hate being alone!” the 83-year-old widow lamented to her family. You may have heard that same complaint from a loved one in your life.

Loneliness is more than just sad, though. It could lead to more medical issues, expenses and could even be deadlier than smoking, research reveals. That’s why, if you suspect a senior is lonely, it may be time to take action.

Studies have shown that socially isolated older adults are at greater risk for poor health and higher health claims than their well-connected friends:

Researchers in a 2017 AARP and Stanford University study estimate that 14 percent of older adults enrolled in original Medicare — or 4 million people — have meager social networks. The federal health care program spends an average of $1,608 more a year for each older person who has limited social connections than for those who are more socially active, the study found. That translates into an estimated $6.7 billion in added Medicare spending each year.

What’s more, a 2018 Cigna study found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Five suggestions to consider with older loved ones to help them avoid loneliness:

  1. Look and listen: Think about the hobbies and passions that piqued the interests of your senior in earlier days. Try to help them reengage in those hobbies. If they no longer are able to do those things, assist them in adapting hobbies or finding new interests altogether. One family caregiver got her father, a former builder, interested in woodworking projects.
  2. Make a plan: It can be too easy for an older adult to get in the habit of staring at the TV all day. Help by creating a monthly plan of activities that will connect them with others. Perhaps it’s a phone call or FaceTime with a grandchild, a coffee date with a friend (you might have to arrange for transportation), or preparing a special dinner of her favorite foods. Mealtimes can be particularly lonely for those who must eat alone.
    One Home Instead CAREGiverSM described a regular ritual with the 83-year-old widow mentioned above. “She’s ready when I arrive at her house,” the CAREGiver said. “As soon as she sees my car, she opens the door. She goes out for every breakfast, and each of us CAREGivers takes her to a neighborhood café where she’s gone forever and is well-known . . . She says she hates being alone!”
  1. Encourage visits: People lead busy lives and often forget about those who are alone and isolated. Encourage visits from family and friends. Plan special get-togethers at times that are convenient for friends and family, and ask them to commit to be there by responding to an RSVP.
  2. Be creative: Even older adults who have a dementia illness or cognitive decline still enjoy many activities, with a little creativity. Look at old photos, watch a movie, take a walk and listen to music.
  3. Consider companionship: You and other family members can’t always be there to provide companionship and assistance. If that’s the case, consider Home Instead.  Assistance with meal preparation, transportation to activities and someone to brighten a day can go a long way toward alleviating loneliness.

Since family caregivers play a crucial role in their senior loved one’s happiness, seeking out support and resources can help ward off loneliness. For more information:

Consider contacting your local area office on aging to identify activities or groups your loved one may be interested in joining.


Last revised: February 5, 2019

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