Senior Loneliness and Isolation: Causes, Health Risks and Solutions

Dr. Amy Altenhaus answers questions about the causes, risks and solutions for senior loneliness, especially during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Isolation and loneliness are increasingly serious issues for seniors.  How is this reflected in what you observe in your practice?

Dr. Altenhaus: In my own practice I often see older individuals who have had a great marriage. From a day-to-day perspective they did a lot of activities together. 

So, when their spouse passes away, it’s common to hear how they didn’t realize how much the attention to each other caused less focus on having friends. These individuals haven’t had the need to go out and make a new friend for years, maybe since they were in college, for example.

What do you think are some key contributors to elders feeling lonely and isolated?

Dr. Altenhaus: During your life you have a lot of things going on. For instance, you’re working for x amount of years and that’s capturing your attention. 

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For some, and it’s maybe not apparent, but they’re minimizing their connections with other people and family members during this time period. So, down the road when they’re not working and they’re retired, they start to realize they’ve neglected making new friends, interacting with people and building strong relationships with family members and they start to feel isolated. 

I also take into consideration the cultural factors. Many seniors grew up with their family living down the road from them or even in the same house. They become used to frequent, in-person communication with their family. 

Now, they’re seeing their children and grandchildren move away due to factors like work or marriage and they become separated.

One common issue is adult children moving out-of-state to go to college. Some may end up living there once they graduate or moving somewhere else that’s not close to home. 

For the first time those seniors aren’t near their family and they start feeling isolated and lonely especially when their own life changes.

What are some of the physical health consequences of senior isolation and loneliness?

Dr. Altenhaus: A major issue is a lot of seniors don’t realize they’re lonely. They don’t realize they miss people and they’re depressed. 

When you’re depressed, you may not be taking care of yourself physically. Your diet and physical activity levels may suffer, and perhaps you may not be taking your medications as prescribed. These issues result in your health being compromised.

There’s a Harvard longitudinal research study which highlights the importance of our connections with people. These relationships are a fundamental part of our well-being, healthy living and longevity of our life.

What can seniors do to feel more connected?

Dr. Altenhaus: Facebook is a great place to start. You can find old friends from college or high school that you haven’t talked to in years and start to rebuild those connections. 

Aside from that, ask yourself what you’re interested in. Most of the time there’s a virtual group or group in your community for your favorite hobby. 

People tell me all the time of this new group they joined on Facebook or online. You can find livestreaming events like yoga classes or religious/prayer groups which allows you to interact with other people who share the same interests as you. 

Are there any hobbies or activities that an older adult can partake in that will help alleviate their feelings and help with the physical health issues that can occur because of it?

Dr. Altenhaus: When you engage in physical activity like going for a walk, doing yoga, working out, etc., your brain is going to produce chemicals that make you feel good. So, there is a psychological reaction that’s going to make you feel better. 

When we’re feeling better, we may find we have the energy and motivation to go out and make connections with other people.

Then you can find groups for the activities you like. If it’s walking, you can find a group in your community that frequently walks together, and you can use this to interact with other people and make friends.

What can loved ones do to help their older relatives feel less lonely and more engaged? 

Dr. Altenhaus: The most basic way is by reaching out to your older family members and asking them how they’re doing. Ask if they need anything and ask how their well-being is. Let them know that you’re always there to talk. 

Younger family members can show their grandparents how to use communication technology like video chat. Then once they’re comfortable using it, you can schedule frequent chats to share stories. 

You can even start a tradition like a weekly virtual dinner or maybe it’s playing a game of cards virtually.

How has the novel coronavirus outbreak contributed to the isolation and loneliness issue that many seniors are facing?

Dr. Altenhaus: I think this outbreak will have long ranging effects on everyone of all ages. 

I believe we will see more depression issues as a result of being socially isolated and the insecurities individuals and families have economically. 

I hope people are going to seek out professional help during this time period. I also think we need to make it a priority to routinely check up on our family members, friends and neighbors. 

Do you have any suggestions/recommendations on what seniors can do during this time of social isolation, which is most likely making their feelings even worse?

Dr. Altenhaus: There’s a lot of virtual mental health services that can help. 

Check to see if your state has a mental health association and if they’re providing free, virtual services. State universities may also be offering virtual counseling services to non-students for free. 

You can also contact your county or state office of aging and ask for the resources you need. 

Many seniors also don’t realize that Medicare covers psychological services and ones done virtually.