Senior Lifestyles: The impact of isolation and loneliness

Published 8:00 am Tuesday, August 28, 2018

For those of us old enough to remember Roy Orbison’s hit song “Only The Lonely,” one of his lyrics accurately stated that something we all have learned, “…only the lonely know the way I feel tonight.”

There have been times in our lives that we’ve all felt lonely for one reason or another, and it’s not a pleasant feeling.

The good news is that, for most of us, isolation and loneliness pass fairly quickly. But for many seniors, especially those who have lost a mate or outlived their friends, the feeling of being alone goes beyond what is normal, and builds on further isolating them from the outside world.

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Remaining isolated, especially if by choice, not only diminishes the simple pleasures of life, but can increase the risk of disease and illness, and may contribute to an early death.

Feelings of isolation can begin during our Boomer years, and a 2010 Harvard Health blog revealed that “35 percent of American adults aged 45 and up felt lonely…and their sense of isolation increased over time — 56 percent had fewer friends at the time of the survey than five years earlier.”

As humans, we’re typically social creatures, with all types of affiliations, friendships, acquaintances, likes and loves, as well as dislikes. The onset of isolation, whether self-inflicted or due to illness or loss of a loved one, creates feelings that have a very real impact on your body.

Over time, this affects you and your health. When interpersonal connections breakdown, and longer periods of isolation from people occur, you incur a greater potential for ill health, with increased risk for:

• Cardiovascular disease

• Decreased cognitive function

• A 26 percent increase in the likelihood of premature death

• Decreased immunity from diseases

• Increased symptoms of depression

• An increase in the severity of stokes

• An overall decrease in one sense of well-being

Here are six suggestions from Dr. Christopher Bullock, a Massachusetts psychiatrist, on how you can help lonely seniors cope:

Get moving 

The longer someone has felt lonely, the more difficult it can be to do something as simple as smiling and saying hello. But finding connections with other people is absolutely essential to alleviating a sense of isolation.

A common cure 

Feeling disconnected with other people and telling ourselves we have nothing in common pretty much guarantees loneliness will continue. Taking a risk and reaching out “may lead you to a connection or commonality that will make you feel less alone.” Strong relationships can help build your health.

Think outside your box

A major consequence of isolation is that we think too much about our personal plight. Switching our frame of reference to what others might be going through can help lighten our own loneliness.

Hunt down a new hobby

Those of us who feel cut off from the outside world can easily fall prey to inertia. So get up and get out there, and just do something. Whether it’s an exercise program or a pottery class, becoming engaged with a new pastime just might make you happier. Crafting can be one easy and engaging way to advance your cognitive skills and participate in a new activity.

Show up 

People who spend extended periods of time on their own often shy away from social functions. Try accepting an invitation to meet for lunch or coffee. If not, even sitting in a public place and reading can be surprisingly stimulating.

Feed your brain 

From crossword and jigsaw puzzles to enrolling in a course at a community college or even online, active brains are more likely to be happy, healthy brains.

The conclusion we can draw from all of this information is that the prescription to defeat isolation and cure loneliness is to add people to our lives to engage us and enrich us.

Ron Kauffman is a consultant and expert speaker on issues of aging. He is the author of “Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease.” He may be contacted at 828-696-9799 or at