Loneliness can afflict people of all ages. In some cases, loneliness is caused by social isolation. About 27% of Americans who have reached the age of 60 live alone. Yet research shows that many older people who live alone are not lonely or socially isolated, while some feel lonely despite living with family members.
A recent study found that older people process social interaction differently than younger people. Spending time with friends and family may not be enough to alleviate feelings of isolation and loneliness. Rather, the study found that older people want “A) to feel respected, like the life they’ve led actually matters to people, and B) to still have a chance to contribute, or ‘give back’ to the communities around them in some way.” People of all ages want to feel valued, but that desire plays a greater role in mental health outcomes as people age.
Living with other people has a positive impact when relationships are caring and respectful. Living with other people may have the opposite effect when relationships are exploitive or abusive. Mental health depends more on the quality than the quantity of social interactions. When people perceive that they are isolated from those with whom they live, they may feel the effects of loneliness more deeply than people who live alone but feel a continuing connection with the larger world.
Health Effects of Loneliness
Loneliness and perceptions of social isolation are associated with adverse health conditions and symptoms, including high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive decline, and dementia. Social isolation and loneliness are also risk factors for depression, anxiety, and suicide.
Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of death from all causes. That association is consistent even after controlling for gender and a diagnosis of depression. While the reasons for that association may be open to debate, recognizing loneliness as a risk factor for premature death should motivate friends and family members to help older people feel a meaningful sense of connection.
Visits to older relatives during the December holidays are common. Those visits are important if they are welcomed. Keep in mind, however, that there is no clear correlation between loneliness and social isolation. Having contact with an older relative might reduce social isolation, but many older people feel lonely even when they have frequent interaction with others, while many older people who minimize their social activities do not feel lonely.
Visiting with an older person may not alleviate that person’s feelings of loneliness if the time is spent talking about the visitor’s life. Meaningful visits make an older friend, neighbor, or relative feel appreciated. Visitors can make their visits count by asking seniors about their lives and opinions and taking an interest in what they say. Visitors should engage in conversations rather than monologues.
Visits can be meaningful by following some simple rules. Don’t assume that older people take no interest in current events. You might be surprised to learn that they follow cultural and political news. And don’t fill the conversation with senior jokes.
Learn about a senior’s food preferences (and dietary limitations) and bring them the kind of meal that they no longer prepare for themselves. Offer to join them for a walk in the park or a low-stress game of Pickleball.
Find a way to chat with the older people in your life regularly, not just during the holidays. If distance limits the opportunity to visit in person, ask about the social media apps they use. If they don’t have one, help them download an app that will allow video interaction. Showing older people that you care about them and value the time you spend together will do more to alleviate loneliness than a mandatory and perfunctory Christmas visit.