by Melissa Chichester
As many adults age, they experience less mobility and the loss of some freedom and independence. A decline in vision and hearing can make it more difficult to communicate, and this transition becomes even more challenging as friends and family members begin to pass away. Adjusting to a new lifestyle is challenging enough, especially while dealing with other health issues (some of which may seem embarrassing). With many families opting to be caregivers for their senior family members, the risk of caregiver burnout runs high. Combined, these factors lead to an increase in senior loneliness. With that in mind, there are actions that can be taken to increase feelings of well-being, alleviate loneliness, and continue thriving while navigating the challenges of getting older.
Mental Health America cites that two million Americans aged 65 and older suffer from depression, and that it is more prevalent in men. In addition, a study by the University of San Francisco revealed that 43% of the adults surveyed felt lonely, despite 18% of the group living with other family members.
Elderly isolation and loneliness has been found to accelerate cognitive decline associated with dementia.
Senior loneliness doesn’t only affect cognitive health: there are physical impacts as well. Feelings associated with loneliness may lead individuals to engage in unhealthy behaviors that affect physical health, including increased alcohol consumption and less physical activity. In turn, these behaviors may lead to more difficulty with conditions affecting the heart and cardiovascular system.
Taking action to avoid loneliness may not remove all of the emotions associated with senior isolation and loneliness, but it can ease these feelings and improve overall well-being. There are many ways seniors can continue to get involved in their communities and adjust to lifestyle changes associated with age.
Most of us have probably uttered the phrase “when I win the lottery, I’m going to…” –and promptly answered with donating money to a favorite charity. For many charities, good volunteers are the lottery! Charities need volunteers for a variety of activities, and some require only a few hours a week or on an as-needed basis. Volunteering not only provides a new gateway to make friends and socialize, it allows seniors to use the skills they have been honing for a lifetime. Local senior centers usually have a list of places that recognize seniors’ needs and are looking for volunteers.
Whether living alone or with family members, pets provide an immeasurable amount of companionship and support. Caring for pets provides a sense of purpose, not to mention valuable cuddle sessions (and those irresistible puppy kisses!). You may even want to consider getting a service dog or therapy dog that you can bring with you during health emergencies or for emotional support. If you can’t care for a pet on your own but love animals, volunteering at an animal shelter to walk dogs or even just pet animal residents is always appreciated by shelter organizers.
Participating in a hobby stimulates cognitive activity and allows you to practice problem-solving skills, stay motivated, and practice goal-setting. If you have played the guitar for many years, learn a new song. Have you always wanted to paint? Now is the time to start! Do you love to knit or crochet? Why not make a blanket? Building puzzles or playing games with friends is a great way to stay social. The best part is that many of these activities are still possible with limited mobility.
Some of us just don’t have that social butterfly gene and may find it difficult to strike up a new friendship; however, it is true that you are never too old to make friends and meet new people!
Churches, senior centers, travel clubs, bird watching groups, historical organizations, and other special interest groups are great places to make acquaintances with new people.
If you don’t want to expand your social group, consider reconnecting with someone that you haven’t talked to in some time. Another option is finding a pen pal. Pen Pals for Seniors is an organization that matches pen pals with seniors, and their mission is to end senior isolation and loneliness.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of aging is moving to a new home that is unfamiliar and appears to be taking away independence. These changes are easier to adjust to with careful planning. Today, there are many choices for assisted living environments and senior living communities, so it is possible to find one you are comfortable with, or that fits your lifestyle and background. One example of this is the Finnish American Village, an assisted living facility in Florida that caters to people with Finnish heritage. There are even themed retirement villages (like Latitude Margaritaville for Jimmy Buffett fans). Take your time and research a place that you feel comfortable with.