What is the impact of loneliness as we age and what can we do to help older adults cope with loneliness? Dr. Rachel Savage, scientist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, lets us know.
Loneliness is a feeling we all experience at some point in our lives. Humans are social beings, and we rely on others for survival. Because of that, some scientists view social connection as a biological need. Like thirst, pain, and hunger, feeling lonely urges us to reconnect with others.
When we start to feel lonely most of the time, however, loneliness can have a significant impact on our health and well-being. Chronic loneliness shortens our lives and has been shown to be associated with cardiovascular disease, depression, sleep problems, dementia and suicide.
While we can feel lonely at any age, older adults are at higher risk for loneliness as aging can be accompanied by triggering events like declining health, bereavement, living alone, caregiving responsibilities, retirement and moving away from friends and family. Feelings of loneliness in older adults can lead to social isolation and can disconnect them from the world around them.
It can be difficult for some to people to share that they feel lonely. Because of that, it’s important for us to let the older adults in our lives know that we care and are there for them. Keep in touch and check in regularly. We can also offer our support by helping them find a group with a shared interest to join or a volunteer opportunity. There are services designed to alleviate loneliness – like telephone befriending (Canadian Red Cross Friendly Calls program) or bereavement support services – that we can help connect them to. Lastly, encourage them to speak to their family physician if they feel comfortable doing so. Clinicians can write social prescriptions to connect older patients with social care in their communities.