According to the National Institute on Aging, nearly 13.8 million older adults live in one-person households, representing 28% of people aged 65 or older. The percentage of people living alone increases with age.
While these statistics may not be surprising, the issue of senior isolation and loneliness is alarming. According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered to be socially isolated.
Senior isolation is when older people are forced to age alone by circumstances rather than by choice. Reasons may include the loss of family and friends, chronic illness, hearing loss, and so on. Whether it’s your aging parents, an elderly aunt, or your neighbor down the street, seniors can feel isolated—socially removed and with no opportunity to engage in their community.
Isolation brings with it serious repercussions. Research links social isolation and loneliness to a higher risk for many physical and mental conditions—like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
Recent studies found that:
- Social isolation significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
- Social isolation was associated with a nearly 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships, characterized by social isolation or loneliness, were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly four times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
The signs of senior isolation and loneliness are oftentimes not easily discernable. Symptoms to keep watch on include:
- Changes in appetite and/or weight. While eating less as we age is normal behavior, a dramatic drop in appetite could signify feelings of loneliness. Be mindful of rapid changes in weight and/or appetite.
- Sleep disturbances. Loneliness may cause erratic sleep. Lack of exercise and increased anxiety aggravate sleeplessness. On the contrary, seniors may sleep too much or at odd hours of the day.
- Social isolation/withdrawal. Seniors who veer from their typical social engagements or suddenly lose interest in things that used to stimulate them may be experiencing social isolation.
- Feeling worthless or guilty. Individuals who have become less self-sufficient may express feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, or being a burden to others.
Plenty of resources are available to help older adults experiencing loneliness and social isolation.
- Area Agencies on Aging (AAA) includes a national network of over 620 organizations that provides information and assistance with programs like nutrition and meal programs, caregiver support, and more.
- Eldercare Locator is the U.S. Administration on Aging public service that connects older adults and their families with services ranging from caregiving to transportation.
- National Council on Aging (NCOA) advocates services, resources, and initiatives to improve the lives of older Americans.
- National Institute on Aging (NIA) is a division of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that leads the federal government effort conducting and supporting research on aging and the health and well-being of older people. It provides materials on social isolation and loneliness for older adults, caregivers, and healthcare providers.
- National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults highlights strategies for keeping older adults active and socially engaged through articles, webinars, and other resources.
In our own business, many of Mom’s Meals’ customers experience loneliness and social isolation. Some live on their own, others have limited mobility that prevents them from getting out, and still, others are homebound because they’re recuperating from a recent hospitalization. Our customer service team plays a critical role in engaging with our customers regularly. From providing assistance and taking meal orders to ensure meal satisfaction, and making friendly conversation, we treat every customer like family. Our delivery drivers are also creating a much-needed human connection with our customers every day—whether it’s a smile and a wave “hello” or a deeper conversation. More often than not, a home-delivered meal is far more than a meal.