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Senior social isolation is a growing problem within a rapidly aging population. Learn the signs & how you can help your loved one today.

Senior Social Isolation: A Growing Problem Among Older Adults

Senior social isolation is nothing new. Think about the many movies, TV shows, or books that feature the cranky older character stereotype. Usually, this person (sometimes portrayed as the story’s antagonist) refuses to let anyone on their property, inside their home, or seldom leaves their house. Carl Fredrickson from the movie Up is a prime example of this stereotype, which the media often uses as a lighthearted, laughable foil for the protagonists in the story.

However, isolation and loneliness in seniors are serious problems that don’t only affect suffering individuals. And as the rate of senior social isolation rises, experts caution about the widespread consequences for communities, health care systems, and even the federal government.

Senior social isolation can be voluntary or involuntary, and getting at-risk seniors the help they need is challenging. For this reason, learning the signs and the effects social isolation have on the elderly is vital. So if you believe your loved one is at risk, this article can help.

Senior Social Isolation Statistics At A Glance

Isolation Vs. Loneliness

Many people often use isolation and loneliness interchangeably, but experts studying this problem note that they are different. For example, loneliness correlates to the individual’s personal feelings or state of mind. Loneliness can occur when the quantity or quality of social interactions doesn’t match what the person wants.

It’s not uncommon for people to feel lonely even when around others. But if they’re at risk of social isolation, they may feel even more lonely, even with a robust support system. According to the National Seniors Council of Canada, senior social isolation is characterized by:

Lonely elderly patient sitting up in her hospital bed and covering her face.

Risk Factors For Social Isolation

Senior social isolation can happen to anyone, no matter how active they have been in the past. However, some seniors are more vulnerable than others. So if you are worried about someone you know, look for these risk factors of senior social isolation:

"From our research and discussions, it is becoming increasingly clear that loneliness in older adults places stress on their health, along with the clinical and social infrastructure needed to support them."

IBM Institute for Business Value

The Effects Of Senior Social Isolation

As mentioned earlier, senior social isolation doesn’t just affect one individual. It also impacts families and communities. So if you know someone who struggles with feelings of loneliness or isolation, it’s crucial to find them the help they need sooner rather than later.

Moreover, the effects of social isolation can be lifelong and make it more challenging to maintain or find new relationships. Unfortunately, this creates a cyclical pattern that can devastate seniors’ quality of life.

Individual Health

Studies show that some of the effects of social isolation rival those of smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. In addition, it can have several negative consequences, such as:

Sad elderly man sitting in a wheelchair in front of a large window.

Family

Senior social isolation means added strain and responsibilities for many family caregivers. According to a 2015 study from the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP Public Policy Institute, 56% of caregivers said their role impacted their careers. Meanwhile, 22% caring for an isolated loved one noted worsened health. These factors can reduce family caregivers’ income, leading to financial insecurity and creating additional pressures that further interfere with personal responsibilities and their capacity to care for their loved ones.

Health Systems

Treatment for adverse health outcomes stemming from chronic loneliness in seniors is costly and increases overall health expenses. Or, in some cases, lonely seniors make frequent doctor’s visits – not to seek treatment for a condition but social interaction. This issue places more stress on already strained healthcare systems by diverting critical resources from other patients’ needs.

According to a 2017 study by the AARP Public Policy Institue, Medicare “spent an estimated $134 more monthly ($1,608 annually) for each socially isolated older adult” compared to their socially-connected counterparts. In addition, isolated Medicare recipients were 29% more likely to spend more for skilled nursing facility (SNF) care. According to the study, Medicare spent an average of $75 more each month on SNF care and $81 extra for inpatient services.

Communities

The hidden costs of senior social isolation have detrimental social and economic effects. For example, as more workers become family caregivers, businesses will see decreased “morale, productivity, and costs.”

Furthermore, as employees leave the workforce to focus on caregiving, the loss of experienced talent will make it difficult for companies to operate at previous levels. Businesses that fail to address the needs of working caregivers may struggle to keep their doors open. In turn, shuttered businesses will negatively impact the community’s local economy.

The community impact extends beyond economic, however. According to a 2013 study, seniors provide many volunteer hours to community groups. Similarly, they often assume leadership roles within their communities. This contribution is significant in rural communities, which struggle to fill “vacancies left by young adults who move to urban areas in search of better opportunities.

But unfortunately, when older adults suffer from loneliness and isolation, they are less likely to participate in civic engagement. In turn, community organizations may struggle to serve their communities effectively while exasperating needs for local leadership.

Social Isolation Among Caregivers

Man comforting middle-age blonde woman with a strong headache.

Senior social isolation is a troubling problem, but it isn’t only the elderly at risk. Whether or not they realize it, family caregivers can also become isolated, complicating existing issues and making care difficult.

Most caregivers work alone, and about 53% have little to no time for friends or family because of their duties. And many prioritize the care of their loved ones over their social well-being. Consequently, they also exercise less and maintain a more deficient diet. 

Taking care of your health and general well-being may be difficult, especially for those who frequently experience guilt for taking time for themselves rather than performing other duties. However, failing to care for yourself can lead to caregiver burnout in addition to social isolation.

70% of caregivers are clinically depressed. So if you think your responsibilities might be getting the best of you, take a moment to take time for yourself. Besides, you don’t have to give up your place as your loved one’s primary caregiver. For instance, respite care is one option. Or, MeetCaregivers can help you find professional in-home care.

You may not need someone full-time, but even a part-time caregiver will give you the chance to watch out for yourself.

6 Ideas To Help Ease Senior Social Isolation

While this problem can be tricky, it’s not impossible. Here are a few things you can do to help someone you believe may be at risk for senior social isolation:

Help them find rides.

A lack of transportation can significantly increase isolation and loneliness. Without a ride, your loved one may feel dependent on others, which can negatively hurt their self-esteem and limit their ability to stay social.

As a family caregiver, you want to help your loved ones as much as possible, but you can’t always be there for them when they need a ride. Consider calling your local community or senior center and finding volunteers who can help. Alternatively, an in-home care professional can also provide transportation and ensure your loved one gets out of the house more.

Support a healthy lifestyle.

Health problems such as eyesight and hearing loss can make older adults more reluctant to leave home. Similarly, incontinence can play a large part in your loved one’s social withdrawal. Therefore, frequently check with your loved one and find treatment as needed. Also, make sure they are eating right and exercising regularly as these things will help improve mood and stave off depression.

Build their confidence.

Everyone struggles with body image issues, and seniors are no exception. Compliments go a long way to help your loved one feel confident. Discourage negative self-talk and fretting when you hear it, and reinforce with kind words.

Help renew their sense of purpose.

Woman's aged hand clasping an elderly persons' to ease senior social isolation.

Many seniors (especially women) may feel a lack of purpose without something for which to care. Encourage your loved one to adopt a companion animal like a dog if their health allows it. If they aren’t a pet person, starting a new hobby such as gardening, volunteering, or painting will improve their well-being.

Show affection.

People who have limited physical contact with others may experience loneliness the most. So, show affection to your relative when you visit them. Even if touching isn’t in either of your natures, just one embrace can help. 

Join age-friendly communities.

Age-friendly communities are great for senior engagement, and Massachusetts has many throughout the state. The Massachusetts Healthy Aging Collaborative, Boston AARP, and the Age-Friendly Boston Project have many resources to help you find adult day care and senior communities.

MeetCaregivers Wants To Help

The stereotype of the grumpy elder might cause many to think that senior social isolation is just another part of aging. But the reality is that it is a troublesome, challenging, and sometimes debilitating problem for the individual and their families.

So, take the time to identify the signs and get your loved ones the help they need. It will improve their quality of life and make their golden years the best they can be.

MeetCaregivers works with you and your loved one to help you find the perfect caregiver based on their needs, personality, interests, and more. In addition to our care, transportation, and meal delivery services, we can provide companionship when you are unavailable.

For more information, contact MeetCaregivers at 1-888-541-1136 or info@meetcaregivers.com. And if you want to find additional resources, visit our blog.

  • AARP. (n.d.). 2 Tools To Overcome Social Isolation. Connect2Affect. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://connect2affect.org/
  • Anderson, J. (2016, March 21). 14 Ways to Help Seniors Avoid Social Isolation. A Place for Mom. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://www.aplaceformom.com/caregiver-resources/articles/help-seniors-avoid-social-isolation
  • Bay Alarm Medical. (2017, October 2). 6 Powerful Ways To Help Seniors Avoid Isolation. Bay Alarm Medical. Retrieved May 14, 2019, from https://www.bayalarmmedical.com/medical-alert-blog/6-powerful-ways-help-seniors-avoid-isolation/
  • Palmarini, N., & Fraser, H. (2020). Loneliness and aging: Navigating how business and government can address an enduring crisis. IBM Research Insights. Retrieved March 8, 2022, from https://www.ibm.com/downloads/cas/RZO0JVMN