According to a recent University of California study, more than 40 percent of seniors experience loneliness. This sense of disconnect from family and community as a whole effects both physical and emotional health. In fact, it’s been found to be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and a serious risk factor for cognitive decline. A panel of experts who testified before the Senate Special Committee on Aging reported that loneliness is a proven “silent killer,” affecting approximately eight million seniors in the U.S. Truly frightening information.
Maybe these statistics are on the rise because people are living longer, or the fact that most seniors want to stay in their own homes for as long as possible. Another contributing factor may be that once older adults no longer feel comfortable driving, their world becomes much smaller, making it difficult to go grocery shopping, make doctor appointments, or attend family functions and other social events that keep one engaged in life. Not that long ago, generations of families often lived in one home or at least close by, so maintaining close contact was easy. Now, this is typically not the case. As family and friends move or pass away, many older adults find themselves in a house that is isolated from the outside world they were once comfortable in.
The Good News: There are simple ways to combat loneliness in seniors.
The National Council on Aging suggests making communication a top priority. Since many older adults go days without speaking to anyone, try to visit your older loved ones frequently. If time and distance make this impossible, video chat with them using Skype or Facetime, and make sure they are up on technology and use it often. It will allow you to connect face to face, which is more engaging than just speaking on the phone, and it is a great way to keep updated on family happenings. You can also make sure that senior loved ones are aware of social outlets, like Facebook, which will allow them to reconnect with old friends and classmates or even take class online classes. Communication really alleviates loneliness, so make sure your loved one stays current on all the options available to them.
Encourage senior loved ones to join a gym or exercise programs at a local senior center. Exercise is particularly beneficial to seniors for a multitude of reasons, both physically and emotionally. Regular workouts get one’s blood flowing and increases strength and flexibility, but equally important, participating in group activities of this kind gives older adults a chance to meet others in a safe and healthy environment where they can have fun, feel good, stay healthy and make new friends – and maybe even go out for lunch after! What can be better – experiencing socialization and improved physical health at the same time!
Staying involved in community life, whether old or new, is extremely important. Attending religious services or participating in events connected to one’s place of worship are excellent ways to stay connected or connect with new people. Other avenues include volunteering, going to presentations at local libraries, community schools, or taking part in adult or senior programs. All these options create opportunities for remaining involved and engaged in life. They also provide a sense of purpose, which, in turn, helps combat isolation.
Make sure older adults have access to adequate nutrition and reliable transportation, as both are vital to health and independence. Meals on Wheels programs and nutrition sites are both wonderful resources that serve the social needs of older adults, as well as providing the nutrition and vitamins they require. As for transportation, Uber, Lyft, EZRide and GoGoGrandparent are just a few of the many options one can put in place to help loved ones feel mobile and independent. This is the best way to help an older adult stay connected to friends, hobbies and hopefully new interests still to come.
Identifying local senior programs is one of the best ways to reduce loneliness while improving emotional health through social interaction. Find places that offer exercise, meals, music programs, lectures and games and more that provide outlets for older adults to meet others and continue to grow.
The Kaplen JCC on the Palisades offers a wide array of year-round programs that promotes both social and emotional health and includes transportation services, hot meals, concerts, trips, holiday celebrations, wellness programs, free exercise classes, lectures, music, special clubs and more. It also features a weekly program for retired executives and professionals; a Senior Activity Center (SAC) for people 75 and older, that allows otherwise homebound seniors to meet and enjoy themselves in the company of their peers; caregiver support programs; and the Kaplen Adult Reach Center (ARC), which provides onsite respite and therapeutic programming for the frail elderly with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Visit the JCC website for program details: http://www.jccotp.org/senior-services.
AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson says, “Social isolation is a problem that receives relatively little attention and sustained focus, but it undermines the health and well-being of millions of older adults.” Knowing how true this is, we should continue to commit ourselves to making it easier for older adults to combat loneliness.
Written by Marlene Ceragno, MA, CPG, CDP, is Program and Caregiver Services Coordinator for the Senior Activity Center at the JCC. She holds a Master’s in Gerontology and Management of Aging Services from the University of Massachusetts. She is a Dementia Care Practitioner and Credentialed Professional Gerontologist. She has worked in the JCC Senior Department for the past eight years.