8 ways older adults can reduce loneliness and social isolation

Chronic loneliness can damage your health as much as smoking. Experts share tips for creating social connections

11:21 AM

Author | Patricia DeLacey

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The COVID-19 pandemic reduced social connectedness for everyone, but older adults were particularly hard hit.

“Older adults were simply taken out of circulation during the pandemic as the infectious disease risk was just too high,” said Preeti Malani, M.D., M.S.J., a University of Michigan Medical School infectious disease professor who is also trained in geriatrics.

According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging – a nationally representative recurring survey on issues of health, health care and health policy in adults aged 50 to 80 – feelings of social isolation decreased from 56% in June 2020 to 34% in January 2023.

SEE ALSO: Loneliness is down, but still high, among older adults

Despite the decrease, one in three adults aged 50 to 80 reported feeling socially isolated from others in the past year.

“According to the U.S. surgeon general, chronic feelings of loneliness can be as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having six drinks a day,” said Lauren Gerlach, D.O., M.S., a geriatric psychiatrist at Michigan Medicine.

Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease and stroke by 30% and can increase the risk of dementia or cognitive impairment, added Gerlach.

Older adults are at higher risk for both social isolation, an objective measure of connectedness to family, friends, and the community, and loneliness, a subjective assessment that social relationships are lacking.

SEE ALSO: Aging well in a pandemic: Older adults share what it takes

Increasing social connection comes with enormous health benefits, including decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, stronger immunity, increased longevity, higher self-esteem and overall better social, emotional and physical wellbeing.

Here, Malani and Gerlach share eight ways older adults can combat loneliness and social isolation.

8 ways older adults can combat loneliness and social isolation

1. Maintain current connections

Take the energy to stay connected to those already in your life.

Whether it’s a phone call, writing a letter or a meet up, try to schedule a time each day to get in touch with friends, family or neighbors.

2. Engage in online social activities

The pandemic increased access to online social activities.

The options are nearly limitless now you can attend faith-based groups, online classes, support groups, and more, all from the comfort of your home.

Video chatting through applications such as Zoom, FaceTime, or other avenues also provides outlets to keep up with your loved ones near and far.

3. Volunteer

Volunteering with local organizations can provide an opportunity to give back to your community while forming and maintaining social relationships.

Check with your local community centers, faith organizations, animal shelters or your town or city hall to see what opportunities may be available nearby.

4. Care for a pet (or pets)

For those who can care for pets, research has shown the companionships formed with pets improves both physical and mental health. Learn more about what the National Poll on Healthy Aging found about the impact pets have on older adults.

5. Establish a daily social routine

Incorporating at least one social outlet that seems enjoyable and feasible into your daily routine will help you to form better social habits.

6. Find grief support

Older adults often suffer a variety of different types of losses, whether that be from the loss of a  spouse, close friend or relatives.

Grief-support groups can help you navigate grief while also providing social support during that time. Many hospice organizations provide free bereavement or caregiver support groups to join.

7. Talk with your primary care provider

Talk over loneliness or social isolation concerns with your doctor or nurse practitioner. They can connect you with specific community resources that can get you more socially engaged and help improve your health.

8. Explore your sources of joy

When asked about sources of joy during the pandemic, a majority of National Poll on Healthy Aging participants responded that being outdoors, physical activity, hobbies, skills, or projects, alone time and pets spark joy.

Consider what your source of joy is. Take the time to identify your source of joy and ways to form and maintain strong social connections as part of a healthy routine.

Spotting loneliness vs. depression in adults

Although they may look similar, it’s important to know the difference between loneliness and depression.

Loneliness can be a risk factor contributing to depression, but depression is a serious mental health concern including the following symptoms: feeling sad or down most days, little interest in daily activities, disruptions in sleep or appetite or thoughts of death.

In the past two years, 19% of National Poll on Healthy Aging participants discussed a mental health concern with their primary care provider and 10% met with a mental health professional.

However, one in three participants expressed they would be hesitant seeking mental health care in the future. Learn more about the poll findings.

“We shouldn’t feel like we can’t talk about mental health,” said Malani. “Mental health is health.”

Depression and other mental health concerns are things that can managed and treated in the primary care or specialty setting, says Malani.

Additional resources

Watch the full webinar on Creating Connections and Reducing Loneliness, part of the U-M Healthy Aging Series 2023.

The Turner Senior Resource Center offers many types of outreach programs and activities serving older adults including the Connected Companions Program, a friendly visitor program that strives to provide companionship to older adults in the greater Washtenaw County area.

College students nationwide, including at U-M, run chapters of the Perfect Pair organization that teams a student with an older adult for companionship and more.

No matter where you live, check out your local senior center or local library for programs and activities serving older adults. And find out what your Area Agency on Aging offers – these are federally funded program serving all areas of the United States with a variety of services for older adults and their caregivers. Look yours up here.

The AARP Global Council on Brain Health Boosters for Joy provides an extensive guide on ways to connect.

More Articles About: Geriatrics Geriatric Psychiatric Treatment Behavioral Health Geriatric Fitness Community Health
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