Joanie and her husband lived a full life, busy careers and wonderful vacation trips after retirement.
Today, Joanie sits silently, alone in front of her television, eating her dinner.
Joanie’s life partner died five years ago at the age of 74, and now that he’s gone, a week can go by without her connecting with a single human being.
Hearing-impaired, she has settled into a life of seclusion.
Joanie possesses the financial net worth to enjoy life, activities, trips, outings and events, but what she lacks is a social network. She is one of millions of seniors suffering from social isolation.
AARP estimates that more than 8 million older adults are affected by this trend.
Socially connected seniors are those who have relationships present in their lives, who have friends or family they can rely on and who are satisfied with those relationships.
For Joanie, who is without siblings or children and whose life revolved around her husband, that is not the case. She finds noisy situations to be stressful because of her hearing impairment.
Social isolation can be triggered by major life-event changes. For Joanie, it was the loss of her work friends after retirement, the loss of her role as a wife and partner, and the fact that she lives alone. Her sensory impairment also played a role.
For others, social isolation may be due to changes in physical or cognitive health, language barriers or limited financial resources.
Julianne Holt-Lundstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, said in her testimony last year to the U.S. Senate Aging Committee that the average size of social networks has declined by one-third since 1985, due in part to smaller family size, a separation of families due to greater mobility, and a higher population of those who are divorced or never married.
In a recent TED talk, developmental psychologist Susan Pinker referred to Holt-Lundstad’s research that ranked risk factors for mortality. Obesity ranked No. 7. Not having a flu vaccine ranked No. 5. Smoking ranked third.
The top two risk factors for mortality: No. 2, a lack of close relationships and No. 1, social isolation.
People who are socially isolated are at increased risk for depression, cognitive decline and dementia as well as a host of other negative health-related outcomes.
The World Health Organization also recognizes the lack of social connections as a risk factor for mortality.
According to Holt-Lundstad, more than one-third of U.S. adults over age 60 experience frequent or intense loneliness, higher than the prevalence of merely living alone. She notes, “Being connected to others is considered a fundamental human need—crucial to well-being and survival.”
Loneliness and social isolation cut across economic and social status. That neighbor living next to you may be experiencing loneliness. Your recently widowed or long-retired parent or sibling may be experiencing loneliness. That family caregiver may be experiencing loneliness and social isolation.
To the passing observer, programs like adult day care are viewed as a way to care for a loved one with dementia, Meals on Wheels as a means to feed homebound seniors and a caregiver support center as an avenue for caregivers to de-stress.
However, something just as important is happening with each of these programs. They are aimed at breaking the cycle of social isolation and loneliness.
We need social connections to thrive. One of our goals at Senior Concerns is to create a network of resources that meets the needs of anyone who is isolated or lonely, and that helps build the social connections older adults need to thrive. Consider joining us in our efforts as a volunteer or supporter.