Bette Davis, a famous movie star, once said, “Aging isn’t for sissies.” How right she was!
In normal aging, our bodies change. Our eyesight changes; metabolism slows; we aren’t physically as flexible or strong; our core temperature drops; taste buds shrink; the ability to smell might change; and hearing loss often occurs.
Other experiences might happen, such as moving away from family; loss of a parent, spouse, child or best friend; loss of financial resources or a physical illness that may change our lifestyle.
Any or all of these things might limit social contacts, which can lead to loneliness or social isolation.
Research reports that social isolation is an increasing health risk for older adults. It increases risk for cardiovascular disease, cognitive deterioration and even mortality. It has been found that lack of social relationships is as strong a risk factor for mortality as are smoking, obesity or lack of physical activity.
Older adults who are lonely have an increased risk of dying sooner and are more likely to experience a decline in their mobility, compared to those who are not lonely.
Is there a difference in social isolation and loneliness? Social isolation is objective and arises in situations where a person does not have enough people to interact with or has limited abilities to interact.
Loneliness is the subjective experience of distress over not having enough social relationships, or low self-worth limiting the person from reaching out for fear of being rejected.
Both social isolation and loneliness are health risks. What can be done to help?
Technology is becoming a great resource in helping older adults. Many now Skype, Facetime or use GrandPad to interact with friends and family. Some utilize robots or “smart” technology such as Alexa and Siri to feel connected and to help manage their homes.
In some cities, a senior can also “rent a pal” – a college student who volunteers to visit a senior. Of course, there is a financial cost to all of these solutions.
Other options for interaction might be to invite and transport the senior to an activity rather than leave them alone. Invite them for dinner. The type of restaurant doesn’t matter. It’s the company and conversation that do.
Call to check on a neighbor or, better yet, stop in for a visit. Making a telephone call or sending a handwritten card is also helpful. Think about what you would like for yourself if you were alone and then invite an isolated senior to join you.
Rachel Carson is the former owner of Home Instead Senior Care, serving the Lowcountry since 1997. She retired Feb. 28, and wishes to thank the editor for the opportunity and those who have read her articles for the past 10 years