Chronic Loneliness: How Social Isolation Affects Mental and Physical Health

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Chronic loneliness refers to the general feeling of sadness, emptiness, and despair that are experienced for a long period. Though most people think that chronic loneliness or isolation is only experienced by young people, that’s not the case. In fact, 25% of senior citizens between the age of 50 and above experience loneliness and isolation.

Furthermore, studies revealed that older adults with one or more chronic illnesses are more likely to experience loneliness as they have less opportunity to communicate with the outside world and less ability to do the tasks they once love doing.

Effects and Health Risk of Loneliness in the Elderly

Chronic loneliness, according to the National Institute of Aging (NIA), is considered a fertilizer for other chronic illnesses such as rheumatism, oral health problems, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and even cancer. Other health risks of loneliness according to several studies include:

  • Premature death
  • Increased risk of Dementia
  • Increased risk of heart disease
  • Increased risk of stroke
  • Increased depression and anxiety
  • Possible attempts of suicide
  • Frequent hospitalization

Some people may think chronic loneliness is just a mere sign of aging, but in truth, it’s something that should be addressed as early as possible.

What are the Causes?

Before we could address the chronic loneliness of a senior relative. We should first determine the possible causes of the condition. Generally, seniors who lost a loved one and lost connection to the community they once belong to are some of the factors that trigger loneliness among the elderly. Other triggering factors include:

  1. Mourning a loved one
  2. Getting retired
  3. Not getting in touch with friends, relatives, and family
  4. Moving to a retirement house
  5. Inability to talk, listen or move
  6. Financial problems
  7. Cancer and dementia

Understanding these factors will allow us the opportunity to help these people suffering from chronic illnesses.

Signs of Loneliness in the Elderly

If your parents or grandparents are in mourning, have recently retired from their jobs, haven't spoken to any friends or family, or haven't been in touch in a while, you can anticipate that they are suffering from chronic loneliness, or going through other triggering factors mentioned earlier. You can also figure out if some elderly are going through chronic loneliness if:

Having Difficulty Sleeping

Studies revealed that older adults who are experiencing chronic loneliness tend to have sleeping difficulties and feel more tired than usual. If this is the case, talking and spending more time with your elderly helps ease their loneliness.

An Increased Habit of Buying

If you notice your elderly going to the grocery store more frequently than before, it may be a sign of loneliness. Going to the market is their way to distract themselves from loneliness. It’s best not to reprimand them if they’re starting to buy unnecessary goods, but instead try to spend more time with them at least.

Frequent Loss of Appetite

Lonely Seniors tend to be more averted to eating. Though this may not be a major sign since old people naturally eat less, frequent appetite loss that affects their health means that they ate likely to feel lonely.

Behavior Changes

Changes in one’s behavior are one of the major signs of chronic loneliness. Older adults who were once socially active will tend to withdraw from any social interactions. On the other hand, people who are normally comfortable in their homes might crave new social connections. If you notice any of these changes, it’s important to take note that they may be experiencing chronic loneliness.

Frequent Phone Calls

Changes in the frequency of phone calls initiated by your elderly might also be a sign of chronic loneliness. If you notice your elderly on the phone talking to someone more frequently than before, then it might be their way of coping with their feelings of loneliness.

Mentioning Names Of Relatives And Friends

Have you noticed your elderly mentioning names that they long lost connection with? Then it might be a sign that they are feeling lonely. Though it’s normal for people to miss relatives and friends who they haven’t talked to in a while, it’s still important to take note of the frequency of the phrases like, “I miss them”, and “They don’t visit anymore”, and “I wonder how they are”.

Increased Self-Isolation At Home

Though it's normal for older people to stay at home more often than before, it’s crucial to watch out for instances when they don’t attend significant family events and reunions. Older adults who are lonely also tend to self-isolate themselves and withdraw from talking to people or relatives.

Easily Be-Friending Suspicious People

Older adults who are going through chronic loneliness can act more friendly to people even if they are regarded as suspicious. This is their way of creating new connections to ease their loneliness. Though this may be a good coping mechanism, it might pose a risk to your elderly’s safety. If you notice your parents or grandparents spending more time on social media, it’s important to keep an eye on what they are doing and engaging with.

Faking Health Issues

Lonely older adults will find a way to cope with chronic loneliness. One of their ways to get your attention is by faking their health issues and making up stories about a certain health condition. If you notice this behavior frequently, try to spend more time with your elderly talking or doing some activities that both of you will enjoy.

Occasional Mentions of Being Lonely

Another way for seniors to get your attention is by mentioning their true feelings. They may try to tell you how they want to see their relatives and friends or that they want someone to talk to. In some cases, they may even tell you that they are feeling lonely.

Tips for Coping / Overcoming

Chronic loneliness in the long run will affect your physical, emotional, and mental health. The good thing is that there are several ways you can do to ease loneliness.

Smile More Often

Many studies revealed the power of a smile in making you feel good for the entire day. To ease the sadness and despair caused by chronic loneliness, try to smile each morning you wake up. You can also share a smile with people you meet at the grocery, park, or across the street. This may be easier said than done, but with continuous practice, it’ll eventually become a habit.

Invite Friends And Relatives

If you’re feeling lonely and want someone to be with, it’s not a bad thing to call several friends or relatives to have some tea, lunch, or dinner at your place. This is not only a great way to ease loneliness, but it's also a great time to catch up with your loved ones. If you’re a caregiver, you can initiate the invitations to alleviate your elderly’s sadness.

Create New Connections Safely And Securely

Creating new connections with the community or with people is also a great way to ease someone’s loneliness. However, beware of suspicious people both in person and on social media. You can join group forums or seminar workshops instead. If you are a caregiver, always keep an eye on the people your elderly interacts with.

Keep In Touch By Social Media Or Phone

Social media and phones have a powerful way of bringing relatives and friends closer together. If you’re not an outgoing person, you can find a way to talk to your loved ones through different mediums like Skype, Facetime, Facebook, or Viber. If you have the phone numbers of your friends, calling or texting them is not a bad choice as well.

Engage In Different Community Activities

This is another way to ease your loneliness and get a better sense of purpose. You can join charity events for the elderly, workshops, book clubs, bingo nights, singing clubs, or whatever suits your interests. This habit can even allow you to learn new skills.

Journal Your Daily Experiences And Plans

Logging your daily experiences will help you realize the things you should be grateful for. On the other hand, writing down plans and bucket lists will help give you a sense of purpose and something to look forward to. Therefore, it’ll help ease your loneliness and even forget about it for a while.

Try Traveling And Visiting Friends/Relatives

If they can’t go to your place, why not visit them? This will even allow you to see different surroundings and meet new people along the way.

Final Thoughts

Chronic loneliness is not just experienced by young people, but it’s also prevalent among the elderly. Older adults who are experiencing this condition not only risk their emotional health but also their mental and physical health.

That’s why for caregivers, it’s crucial to keep an eye on the signs of chronic loneliness of the elderly and address the condition by encouraging the seniors to follow the tips mentioned earlier. I hope this article helped you have a better understanding of chronic loneliness in the elderly.

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