People struggling with loneliness tend to live shorter lives because being lonely increases the risk of heart disease, hypertension, depression, obesity, digestive problems, sleep problems, anxiety, dementia, and other health conditions. Rightathome.net cites there is an increase in what is known as “the loneliness epidemic” which, aside from the context of heartbreaking emotional sadness, has real physical consequences as well. Right at home, reports studies show loneliness is as bad as morbid obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes a day with some experts estimating loneliness can shorten a life span by 50 percent.
Insights on Recent Senior Loneliness Studies
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers important insights from three recently published studies. Some of these insights may seem self-evident, but the physical repercussions of loneliness cannot be understated in the days of COVID-19.
Study 1: Shifts of Loneliness Due to Disability and Age
As you age, your experience of loneliness increases. A study by Louise C. Hawkley, Ph.D., at the social research organizations known as NORC at the University of Chicago, found that seniors younger than 75 years and in good health may be somewhat less socially isolated than counterparts of generations before them. This finding is a positive trend. However, the situation changes with increases in disability and age.
Commonplace later life experiences such as declining mobility and health, the loss of a spouse or loved one, retirement, and moving from a long-time home can all bring about social isolation. Routines and norms are shattered as the inevitable changes of growing old present themselves. Statistically, more seniors are living alone these days, fewer are married, and they have fewer children, which compounds the problem of loneliness.
Study 2: Decreased Loneliness When Spending Time with Others
In the second study Bianca Suanet, Ph.D., of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam headed a research team that scientifically confirmed spending time with other people decreases feelings of loneliness. A most unsurprising conclusion. However, the research team also discovered that having a feeling of control relieves the feelings of loneliness. Having control over your life lowers the feelings of aloneness for seniors. Even those seniors who spend a significant amount of time alone feel less distress and loneliness because they know there are social opportunities to engage in if they chose to do so.
While knowing you have options can be inspiring to combat loneliness, having the feeling of control as you age can be quite a challenge to experience. During the Coronavirus pandemic, some of the ways seniors can take control are through video chat, email, and social media experiences. Until there comes a time when more traditional community social outlets, like churches, senior centers, and extended family connections, can be experienced, the digital world provides the controls to act on integrating into the online world, lessening feelings of isolation and thus loneliness.
Study 3: Seniors with Small Social Networks have Satisfactory Relationships
In the final study, Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Ph.D., University of Leeds reports that, though seniors may have a smaller social network, they tend to report higher satisfaction in their relationships. Quality can offset quantity when it comes to friends. Bruin says of her findings that “Loneliness has less to do with the number of friends you have and more to do with how you feel about your friends.”
The research also shows there is an emotional boost that is provided even by “weak ties” such as a grocery clerk, medical clinic receptionist, and other people with whom seniors have brief but nourishing interactions. Naturally, during the Coronavirus pandemic, these sorts of casual interactions are few because of social distancing protocols. Similar types of communication, again on social media and other internet sites, can provide just enough digital human connection to combat feelings of loneliness. Teaching a senior to open a Facebook or email account opens up boundless possibilities of interchange with other people online.
What Do Seniors During COVID-19 Need to do To Avoid Loneliness?
During the time of COVID-19, seniors need to maximize how they can connect to avoid becoming lonely. A senior’s primary caregiver is perhaps the best place to start. Whether a professional caregiver or family member, these day to day ‘contact people’ can gauge how their senior is feeling. Caregiver observations will indicate at what point there needs to be an increase of human connection to keep the senior healthy both emotionally and physically. American seniors are a vulnerable population with regards to contracting the Coronavirus, but self-isolation has its dangers. Maintaining contact with seniors through primarily digital connection and limited human interaction can stave off loneliness until we can all meet again.
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