Isolated and Lonely: How Can We Avoid This?
How do you avoid becoming isolated and lonely as you get older? Are there things you can do to help prevent this?
Isolation and loneliness is a very real fear for many older adults. Many of us know of someone suffering from it, and it can be very sad. Recently, we asked our Longevity Explorers about social isolation and loneliness. This article summarizes those discussions, and lists their ideas for avoiding this as you get older, as well as what can cause it in the first place.
We've organized this synthesis of the Longevity Explorer discussions into two main sections. First we hit the key takeaways. Then we dig deeper into some of the more complex aspects of what our explorers discussed on the topic of overcoming loneliness, and how isolation sneaks up on us as we age. Finally, if you want the real color behind this exploration, links to the audio recordings of the discussions themselves are on the right (big screen) or below(small screen). This synthesis was created from a number of Longevity Explorer discussions by Mike Neises.
Overcoming Loneliness and Isolation: Takeaways
Our Longevity Explorer groups identified a number of ways to help combat isolation and loneliness in either our own lives or the lives of others, as we grow older. Here is their list (in no particular order):
Pets. Having your own pet, or helping someone else with their pet, can be very helpful. For example, walking a neighbor’s dog everyday. Pet responsibilities can help give people purpose and meaning.
Senior clubs. Our explorers are aware of a number of great clubs, which often provide and arrange transportation as well. Typically, the clubs offer a wide variety of arts, education, and physical exercise opportunities.
Affinity clubs or organizations. Become a member of a formal or informal group that is united by a common theme or activity. Find what you like to do, take the initiative to find like-minded people, and stick to it. This will be a big help in mitigating social isolation and loneliness.
Cross-generational interactions. Try to have interactions with different generations. For example, living at an all-age residential hotel (vs. more age segregated). Some older adults like the atmosphere and the energy they experience, and they often learn new things in their multigenerational experiences.
Good neighbors. People nearby that you can trust and that can check in on you periodically. These simple interactions can be very valuable and oftentimes turn into genuine friendships.
Housing options. Various community living and care arrangements which can help provide or facilitate companionship. For example, multigenerational living facilities, co-housing with matched renters, and accessory-unit rentals can increase social contacts and interactions.
‘Buddy’ system, or a check-in system. Having some sort of daily-checking routine can be very helpful and reassuring and combat isolation and loneliness. For example, sending a text to a family member every day before lunch; or, making sure your living room curtains are open every morning (to let neighbors know that you are up and about).
Regular visitors, or social service program visitors. Simple visitation can be a big help in fighting isolation and loneliness. Whether it be a friend, family member, neighbor, or an assigned social service volunteer; their visits and conversations are often much anticipated and appreciated by older adults.
The internet. Easy access to the internet can make a big difference. It does not replace the need for social interactions, but it can be a good substitute sometimes, as well as a great source for interests and online activities. People may need to be taught how to use the internet, and it can be expensive to some.
Television. Even television can help reduce the feeling of social isolation and loneliness. It gives you a connection with the outside world. Its advantage is that it is familiar and can be easy to operate.
Robots; AI (artificial intelligence); Alexa. These options seem to be primitive at this point, but they also seem to be getting better very quickly. They can provide a partial solution to social isolation, but cannot truly replace human face-to-face social interaction. Some explorers see a lot of potential here.
Community education courses for older adults. Community classes for older adults can be very good for social interaction. Not only that, but they are typically a lot of fun and very educational. One example: the OLLI Lifelong Learning courses.
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Causes of Isolation and Loneliness: Takeaways
There are a number of things that can contribute to social isolation and loneliness. They can range from aspects of your mental and physical health, to where you live and your financial situation.
Here are some causes mentioned by our Longevity Explorers. Each one has the potential to limit human contact and thus increase the chances of social isolation.
Hearing. This is a big one. You may not be able to talk on the phone. Group meetings or basic social interactions can be hard. It could be very easy to lose contact with friends.
Eyesight. Deteriorating vision can limit driving, mobility, reading, and more. Poor eyesight may cause you to stay in your room more; you may not feel as confident now as you used to when you could see better. For example, you don’t go out as much because you feel more vulnerable and less secure. This lack of mobility can make you feel like you are stuck in your own prison.
Poor physical health. For example, a heart condition. Poor health may prevent you from participating in your previous hobbies (e.g., golf). Older adults may have to find new hobbies due to physical ailments. This could contribute to greater social isolation.
Mobility issues. Examples could include not being able to walk very well, not being able to drive anymore, and living somewhere with limited access to public transportation. Obviously, factors that could lead to increased isolation.
Age-segregated communities. The type of housing we occupy can greatly affect not only our physical but also our mental wellbeing. Poorly designed housing complexes, coupled with an age-segregated population of older adults needing help with basic living, could contribute to unhappiness from a sense of isolation, decreased mobility, ill health, and cognitive decline.
Cognitive or memory impairment. Dementia can add a very complicated layer to the already-complicated issue of isolation and loneliness in older adults. It can contribute to, as well as exacerbate, isolation and loneliness. It makes loneliness mitigation attempts even more challenging and difficult.
Fixed income. Unfortunately, having lower and fixed incomes can be limiting when you age. Tight finances can limit the options and opportunities available to some older adults, thus possibly increasing isolation and maybe loneliness. For example, affording home-care services, or the basic costs of leisurely endeavors.
Retired/empty nester. The daily and weekly social interactions that you may have been used to, or happened kind of automatically at work or with previous household members, are now not there anymore. Family may be farther away, making isolation more likely.
Death of a partner/spouse and friends. It can be hard to replace old, longtime friends with new ones. And even if you can, it often takes time. Isolation and loneliness can sometimes creep in.
Lack of purpose or meaning in life. This can sometimes be a core reason for loneliness. There’s an old saying that everyone needs something to make them get up and out of bed in the morning.
Difficulty making contact with others. For some people, it can be hard to interact with other people. Sometimes, you just need to get out of your comfort zone to initiate social connections. It can be easy to talk oneself out of it. Often times, it is the hardest part and you just need to force yourself to do it.
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A few of the ideas mentioned earlier received deeper discussion from our Longevity Explorers. If you are interested in those discussions, those topics are listed below, and you can find the discussion summaries after that.
- Basic Definition of Social Isolation and Loneliness
- Personal Motivation and Initiative
- Technology and the Internet
- Dementia and Social Isolation and Loneliness
- Housing Solutions for Social Isolation
Basic Definition of “Social Isolation and Loneliness”
‘Social isolation and loneliness’ is a complex topic. Loneliness is often experienced as more of an anxious or sad feeling. However, you don’t necessarily have to be alone in order to experience it. Sometimes you can feel lonely even when surrounded by other people.
And, being ‘alone’ could be good or bad; it doesn’t necessarily mean you are lonely. We all want to be alone at least once in awhile; for example, when you feel tired and would like to take a nap. Another example is that some people may prefer living alone versus living with others, and are perfectly content with that choice.
Personal Motivation and Initiative.
One factor sometimes affecting isolation and loneliness in older adults is simply a person’s motivations and initiative. Some people are fun, good people, but are not very good at ‘breaking the ice’.
A number of individuals don’t seem to have that initiative or ability to initiate an interaction. They are often fine and fun to be with when someone else takes the initiative to start an interaction. But if someone else does not initiate the connection or interaction, the interaction never takes place. Once they get over that initial first step, they are often fine.
- Each individual needs to take the initiative, but some don’t know how or are really incapable of doing that. Oftentimes, this lack of motivation or initiative is a personality-related issue that can be hard to change. It is part of why they are isolated.
- It can be a hard job to get some people motivated to participate. Some are scared; possibly afraid of rejection. Some don't want to ‘compete’ socially; they feel inadequate or uncomfortable.
- Opportunities are out there for older adults; find your interests. Take the initiative to get an association or connection, and be persistent; stick to it for a while. Be open to opportunities; break out of your comfort zone. Be more proactive on calling people/friends.
One caveat: Sociability, or the lack of, can be situational. There are times, for example, when you just don't want to join other people for dinner. A couple may want to eat alone or just dine with each other. There are times, too, when you may be tired and just don’t want to interact with people. ‘Situational sociability’ is quite different from social isolation and loneliness.
Technology and the Internet.
There is a lot of potential for technology to help us battle isolation and loneliness among older adults. Some of the examples brought up during discussions include:
- Robotics. One example that was cited: Robots exist that can read the same books as you, and can actually discuss the book with you. An interesting new option that is still primitive at this point, but is getting better fast.
- Smart-Phone and Computer Apps. Currently, there are apps that can alert you, for example, that someone is nearby that is interested in meeting to get coffee. Or, other affinity-related apps for alerting you that I’m available and nearby for a walk, etc.
- Alexa/Artificial Intelligence (AI). Taking the above affinity apps one step further, Alexa or similar AI capabilities allow a person to ask it to find others that want (e.g.) coffee, or other affinities. ‘Alexa’, by requiring just talking or speaking, can make these activities or benefits even easier to do.
Woven into these discussions, though, is the caveat that older adults wanted and needed better and simpler setups for using this technology. Simplicity, good instruction, and ease of use were critical to them, otherwise, these barriers can deter many older adults from using these technologies.
Dementia and Social Isolation and Loneliness.
Dementia can add a very complicated layer to the already-complicated issue of isolation and loneliness in older adults.
Oftentimes with dementia sufferers, the problem with communication and connection is the initiation of the interaction. Good conversations can and do happen with dementia patients, but just relying on the patient to get the interaction started can be the stumbling block.
Novel solution ideas.
As part of the discussions, our explorers came up with a couple of novel ideas for helping dementia sufferers kickstart or initiate interactions.
Robots. Build or program a robot to get a dementia sufferer’s attention. For example, when a remote family member wants to talk to the person on the phone, the robot would be programmed to approach the dementia-ed person and then just start talking or initiating the phone conversation. Thus, the interaction is initiated remotely for the family member via the robot and it is easy for the dementia sufferer to join in.
A lower tech option: A big sign. For the same goal of helping to remotely initiate the interaction, you could also use a large sign on the wall in the room. So, when a phone call from a family member comes in for the dementia sufferer, a special noise will be created. Correspondingly, a large sign on the wall of the room will say “If you hear a noise, then press the red button on your pad.” This will help the dementia sufferer get started in the interaction, from a remote location.
Other interesting points made by the explorer groups regarding dementia were:
- Visitors may need advice and instruction. Interacting with dementia sufferers can be difficult and challenging at times. Not all well-intentioned visitors know how to interact with folks with dementia. Thus, visitation can be boring and awkward. Basic advice and instruction could be helpful and keep visitors interested in coming back again.
- Pets and music can also be beneficial for making a connection with a dementia sufferer. If regular personal or family visits are not very successful, pets or music may be an option that opens the door to connection and communication.
- A final note is explorer acknowledgment that dementia and isolation/loneliness is a very big and complicated topic!
Housing Solutions for Social Isolation.
Some interesting options in housing can help combat isolation and loneliness among older adults. Especially as we get older, the type of housing we occupy can greatly affect not only our physical but also our mental wellbeing.
Our explorers discussed a few of the various community living and care arrangements which can help provide companionship.
All-age residential hotels. Some explorers spoke highly of ‘all age’ living facilities, compared to more age-segregated communities. More specifically, they like the atmosphere and higher energy, as well as the increased opportunities to connect with different ages and learn new things.
Accessory unit rentals. As one becomes older, and as family situations change, a current house could become too big for one person. Accessory units (or ‘granny units’) on the property can be rented out, or maybe separate living quarters can be made of current house space. Housing rental could also be exchanged for home maintenance, help, and companionship. Graduate students would be good candidates for this option. Discussions also included the importance of careful screening for this housing option.
Co-housing. Somewhat of a newer option that seems well received thus far is co-housing, where residents (old and young) share living facilities. The benefits for older adults are shared help, companionship and contact with younger generations. However, such facilities are few in a number of areas, and efforts need to be made to ensure residents are harmonious with each other.
Apartment-complex social programs. Some apartment complexes also provide organized social programs, which can provide multigenerational contacts to avoid isolation.
Join the Conversation
We hope this summary of our Longevity Explorer discussions was helpful to you, and that you were able to pick up an idea or two for combating or overcoming isolation and loneliness; either for yourself and/or others. Thank you for reading this.
If you have other suggestions or thoughts on this topic, please share them using the Discussion and Comments section below. Reader comments are always very helpful to us, and to your fellow readers.
Discuss, Comment, Ask Questions
Comments, Questions, Discussion
from Anonymous (unverified) at Nov 5 2018 - 10:50am
Excellent information on a key issue. As a mostly retired RN/CNS with much experience working with persons with dementia, I do not like the term dementia sufferer. It would be better and kinder to state ‘a person or persons with dementia’.