Recently, my coworkers and I have begun to see a spike in the number of seniors in our community who go days on end without human contact. Yet when asked if they’re lonely, they say no.
These individuals are quite content with their daily schedule. In many cases, they’re proud of their independence—even if it means a lack of socialization and the absence of trusted resources.
This journey into aloneness can be likened to the tale of the boiling frog.
As the fable goes, if a frog is suddenly put into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water, which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.
A not-so-pretty analogy but one that bears truth for some seniors who, over time, have isolated themselves.
Before their current situation, their life used to be much more interactive and social. They may have had a spouse, neighbors they visited with, a job they went to, a companion pet and a set of activities that brought them out of the house.
Over time, these seniors suffered losses and found themselves alone. Physical limitations may have made going out into the community harder than it had been in the past.
As resilient souls, they learned to “make do” by establishing routines, substituting the personal contact they no longer had with activities that provided other forms of comfort—television, reading, puzzles and sleep, for example.
It’s a predictable world, in which they “get by,” but like the slow-boiling frog, there is a lack of awareness as to the danger they put themselves in.
Today, 28% of older adults in the U.S. live alone. Living alone is not in and of itself the only determining factor for social isolation. However, an increasing number of seniors are at risk. This may be due to several factors such as death of family members or friends, retirement or poor health.
Our society also encourages seniors to age in place, expecting them to live longer at home. In addition, today’s seniors have fewer children versus past generations and, as a more mobile society, their children may not live close by. When you combine all these factors, the issue of social isolation takes on a new importance.
There is a difference between being alone and loneliness. A person is alone when they are by themselves. An individual is lonely when they feel abandoned or sad due to isolation.
If a senior were to feel lonely, they might be motivated to do something about it, such as talking with a professional or seeking human contact. But when they don’t feel those feelings and life continues in solitude, there is true danger with this lifestyle.
Besides higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions, socially isolated seniors are more likely to feel depressed. However, depression in older adults may be difficult to recognize. For some older adults with depression, sadness is not their main symptom.
Sometimes older people who are depressed feel tired, have trouble sleeping or are irritable. Confusion or attention problems caused by depression can result in seniors having problems processing information. This in turn can lead to difficulties with decision-making and memory storage and recall.
Isolating themselves from their community can also prevent seniors from receiving benefits and services that can improve their economic security and their ability to live healthy, independent lives.
Several social, religious and community organizations offer interventions to help tackle senior social isolation, including one-to-one visits, group events, service provision, technology based connections and neighborhood gatherings.
And while senior isolation is a growing issue, according to a Cigna study of 20,000 Americans using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, adults ages 18 to 22 are the loneliest segment of the population.
To really solve the problem of social isolation, we need a cultural change from “cure” to “prevention” across the life course.
Maybe we need to design a program where we connect the 18- to 22-year-olds in our community to people over 80.