Almost one-fourth of community-dwelling adults who are 65 or older are considered to be socially isolated. And, among adults who are 60 or older, 43% report feeling lonely.
That’s according to a 2020 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM).
We’ll go into more detail about social isolation among elderly people and the health effects that loneliness can have later in this blog post. For now, just take a moment to let that sink in: Close to half of all adults ages 60 or older say they feel lonely.
Now, consider that as people get older, their social circles tend to grow smaller. On top of that, their opportunities to socialize may also diminish. Lack of mobility, hearing loss, chronic illnesses, and other challenges may prevent them from participating in activities they’ve enjoyed for years.
You can easily see how widespread loneliness may be among the elderly. And it can take a toll on both quality of life and longevity.
Do you have an elderly parent or family member who may be experiencing loneliness? If so, you can help by giving them more opportunities to interact with you, their friends, and their peers.
Not sure how to go about doing that? Read on!
Activities for Seniors Don’t Have to Be Planned
Although arranging a special way to spend time with your loved one is ideal, know that by simply including them in everyday activities can help boost their sense of self-worth.
For example, Sheri Konvalin, the activities director at our Chandler community, turns everyday activities like washing dishes and folding socks into opportunities to contribute for residents in assisted living and memory care.
Of course, she also organizes plenty of activities that residents look forward to each day, including games and group events, as well as one-on-one sessions. They’re purposely designed for fun, physical exercise, and mental stimulation. What matters most, though, is that older adults feel capable and feel good about themselves.
The upshot is that even when you can’t set aside an hour or two to do something special with your elderly parent, you can still find ways for them to pitch in. In addition to increasing their self-esteem, it could improve their health — and help them live longer.
The Health Hazards of Social Isolation and Loneliness in the Elderly
According to the NASEM report, social isolation significantly increases the risk of mortality. In fact, research suggests that the risk may be as high as that for obesity, smoking, and lack of physical activity.
Conversely, the same research indicates that being socially connected in various ways is associated with a 50% greater likelihood of survival. Some indicators of social integration, the researchers noted, are associated with a 91% greater likelihood of survival.
Loneliness and social isolation among the elderly are also associated with an increased risk for:
- Cancer mortality
- Functional decline
- Heart disease
Defining Social Isolation and Loneliness
Some people feel lonely even when friends and family are around. Yet other people can be alone for long stretches of time and still not feel lonely.
So, what exactly do the experts mean when they talk about socially isolation and loneliness?
The NASEM report defines social isolation as “the objective lack of (or limited) social contact with others.” Loneliness, on the other hand, is “the perception of social isolation or the subjective feeling of being lonely” that occurs when there’s a significant discrepancy between the social relations a person actually has and the social relations they would like to have. In other words, feeling left out.
Self-Isolation Amplifies Social Isolation
Joseph Fort Newton, a Baptist minister and author who lived from 1880 to 1950, said:
“People are lonely because they build walls instead of bridges.”
Older adults may not intentionally build walls around themselves, but physical limitations can cause them to withdraw. For instance, it’s difficult to engage in conversation when you can’t hear what others are saying.
Those with health issues may not feel up to spending time around other people. These are some health conditions that can cause older adults to forgo social events:
- Dental problems
- Poor vision
- Frailty that leads to fear of falling
In addition, some seniors don’t want to feel as though they’re a burden. So, rather than asking for help or seeking to spend time with others, they keep to themselves.
If you’ve noticed that your loved one is turning down invitations or doesn’t seem interested in attending family get-togethers, you may want to (gently) ask them why. Be careful not to embarrass them or make them feel as if they’re being judged, as that could cause them to withdraw even more.
A Note About Seniors With Cognitive Decline and Dementia
Older adults who realize they’re experiencing cognitive decline may self-isolate for various reasons. In such cases, it’s a good idea to encourage them to participate in familiar activities. At the same time, try to avoid overstimulation, as that can lead to agitation.
The authors of the NASEM report cited a 2015 meta-analysis that revealed an association between an increased risk of dementia and high levels of loneliness, infrequent social contacts, and low-levels of group participation. The meta-analysis indicated that these social factors increased the risk of dementia by about 50%.
Our Approach to Preventing Loneliness and Isolation
If you’re familiar with our communities, then you know we’re not a nursing home or a geriatric facility.
Our villas are intentionally designed to feel similar to a home that residents are accustomed to living in. Here, they have their own room (unless they prefer to room with someone) and a private bathroom. Meals are prepared in the villa’s kitchen, and they can eat at the dining table with other residents.
What’s different from their previous home — and one of the facets that separates us from other retirement communities — is that each of our villas has a large, open common area with plenty of space for group activities.
In fact, Sheri says these spacious common areas are part of what drew her to Park Senior Villas. She joined our staff after moving to Arizona earlier this year.
Sheri is excited about drawing on her 25-plus years of experience as she develops the memory care program for our Chandler community. She says that even though memory care at Park Senior Villas is person-centered, she likes to include all residents in the activities when possible.
Typically, that means bringing residents who live in the memory care villas to the assisted living villas for group activities, and oftentimes, for the one-on-one sessions. Sheri notes that even if memory care residents only observe during the activities, many of them will gradually begin to participate.
“It brings them more to life to keep them all together,” she says.
One of Sheri’s priorities is to gather a complete history for each resident in memory care. To do that, she plans to talk with one or more of the resident’s family members about their loved one’s past and preferences.
The purpose of these histories is twofold. First, the more Sheri knows about the residents, the better she can develop a personalized care plan and specific activities for them. Second, by knowing the important events in their history, both good and bad, she can help guide their focus toward happy memories and avoid triggering memories of sad or traumatic events.
Activities for All
An online search for “senior citizen group activities” will turn up the usual assortment: bingo, karaoke, trivia, board games, chair yoga, and breathing exercises, as well as versions of soccer, softball, basketball, and other sports that use safer equipment to avoid injuries.
As you can see on our assisted living activities page, we do all of that here — and then some. Our activities directors create unique pastimes based on residents’ interests, requests, and abilities.
But while other senior living communities tend to segregate their memory care residents from other residents during activities, we believe, as Sheri points out, that there are benefits to having everyone together during most activities.
During karaoke, Sheri says, she frequently pairs a memory care resident with a resident from assisted living. Many times, the memory care resident will follow the other resident’s lead and they’ll end up singing together.
We always encourage family members to join us for activities and meals — not just on holidays like Mother’s Day or Father’s Day, but every day. It’s uplifting to have residents’ families joining in the conversations and events. And, we commonly see members from different families form close relationships with one another.
“We take care of the families, too,” Sheri says. “We have to earn their trust. Counsel them. Reassure them that they made the right decision to move their loved one into our community.”
For More Information
We invite you to learn more about our person-centered, abilities-based approach to memory care, our many activities for seniors at all levels, and our unique villa residences. Just contact us to arrange a virtual or in-person tour. We’re happy to answer any questions you may have!