"Human beings are social creatures" - this sentence is probably one of the most common definitions describing people. As such, we often take the presence of others for granted. However, loneliness is a serious issue among people regardless of their age, gender, and ethnicity.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced societies worldwide into long periods of social isolation and social distancing, which prompted a discussion about the fact of feeling lonely and its possible consequences.
Loneliness is a health concern that's been present for a long time, yet it's still rarely discussed. It's especially problematic for the elderly, a social group that's affected by it the most. Even though loneliness is perceived as a feeling, it has real-life consequences on human health. There are numerous studies that focus on the effects of loneliness among senior citizens. Their findings shed some light on the problem of loneliness and its causes, as well as provide information on adverse health consequences resulting from it. If you want to learn more, keep on reading.
Loneliness vs. Solitude
Researchers agree that being alone and being lonely are two different things. Here's how these two terms can be explained:
Solitude is voluntary, and it actually can have some mental health benefits. It allows people to recharge and focus while spending time on their own. People can interact with others and reach out whenever they need to connect, with periods of time they spend alone.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is considered an involuntary separation, abandonment, or rejection by other people despite craving social connections. It's often accompanied by feelings of isolation and other negative emotions.
It's worth noting that a person may feel lonely while interacting with others, or the other way round - be socially isolated but not lonely. As such, loneliness is perceived as a state of mind.
Causes of Senior Isolation and Loneliness
Senior loneliness may be caused by a number of factors. First, it can be a symptom of a psychological disorder or another illness, such as depression or dementia. Both conditions often cause people to become socially withdrawn, which, in turn, leads to feelings of loneliness and social isolation. Additionally, the elderly may be hesitant to go out due to their own health concerns. For example, they may be afraid of incurring an injury or becoming more ill while outside the safety of their homes.
Other factors contributing to loneliness among the elderly are situational variables, such as divorce or death of one's spouse, children leaving home or the elderly moving away to a new location, other changes in their living environment, living alone, forced physical isolation, deterioration of their friend network, and lack of opportunities to participate in the community.
Senior loneliness can also be a result of internal and personality factors, such as the introverted personality type or low self-esteem. Senior introverts may be less inclined to reach out to others and cultivate any relationships they may have. Also, people with self-esteem issues or low confidence might believe that they don't deserve attention from others. Additionally, communication problems may cause the elderly to become withdrawn and socially isolated. In the case of language barriers, hearing problems, or health-related speech impediments, they may be discouraged from seeking contact with others.
Each of these factors may lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness. It's often the case that an elderly person develops these feelings due to a number of factors occurring at the same time with no possibility to eliminate any of them.
Spotting the Symptoms
If you suspect that an elderly person you know might be struggling with loneliness, look for these symptoms:
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Loss of interest in hobbies
- No interest in socialising
- Sleep disturbances and memory problems
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Neglect of personal hygiene and other daily routines
- Seemingly unexplained sadness or feelings of despair
Negative Health Effects of Loneliness Among the Elderly
Research shows that loneliness can negatively impact the health of the elderly. While it won't certainly lead to adverse health conditions listed below, it may greatly increase the risk of their onset. Here's a number of negative effects that may be caused by loneliness among seniors:
One of the most obvious effects of loneliness is its negative impact on the mood of a person who's living alone. Numerous studies show that loneliness is always associated with negative feelings, such as sadness, numbness, pain, hopelessness, and low self-worth. In the case of the elderly, depression may develop as a result of prolonged loneliness and social isolation. On the other hand, the already existing condition may be exacerbated by feelings of loneliness and lack of support.
Cognitive Decline and Dementia
Another negative health effect of loneliness is the deterioration of mental health. In the case of the elderly experiencing long-time loneliness, it's often manifested as cognitive decline and poorer overall cognitive performance. Additionally, studies show that social isolation and senior loneliness result in the onset of various forms of dementia. This condition itself can cause the elderly to become even more reclusive.
Reduced Physical and Mental Health
A recent study based on data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project showed a direct correlation between senior loneliness and their physical and mental health. Researchers found that the elderly who feel lonely and isolated report deterioration of their mental and physical condition.
Increased Risk of Mortality
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. While trying to find an explanation to this observation, researchers came up with an interesting hypothesis. The elderly who live alone and lack social contacts tend to seek no medical assistance, even when they experience unpleasant symptoms or develop other serious health conditions.
High Blood Pressure and Long-Term Illness
A study in Psychology and Aging showed a direct correlation between senior loneliness and high blood pressure. These results were independent of race, gender, and ethnicity. Additionally, the elderly who reported feeling lonely were more likely to suffer from long-term illnesses.
Even though loneliness is a state of mind, it can affect the health of the elderly in a negative way. First, it has an adverse impact on their mental health, leading to negative emotions and either causing or exacerbating depression.
If you think that an elderly person you know might be struggling with loneliness, look for symptoms such as expression of sadness and despair, lack of energy, or no interest in hobbies and socialising. Even though you may not be able to help on your own, there are other solutions that can make their situation better. For example, live-in care might be a good idea, especially if you can't provide them with full-time assistance. Ultimately, it's important to address this issue and look for ways that can help the elderly in the long run.<>