Social Isolation – A Growing Epidemic

04/04/2017 01:53 pm ET

According to the AARP, 51 percent of people over 75 live alone. Twenty-six percent face an increased risk of death due to subjective feeling of loneliness. More than 8 million adults age 50 and older are affected by isolation.

The problem will become worse over time as the boomers grow older. This is a generation that has had fewer kids; many having no children. It is a generation that was adventurous and had no problem moving away from hometowns. It is a generation that married less often and gotten divorced more often. The safety net of family is less obvious for this generation as it was for their parents.

We often talk about filling the loneliness void with friends and that is a good thing. But consider a study presented at last year’s Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA) entitled “Social Relationships and Mortality in Older Adulthood.” It showed that for older adults, having more or closer family members in one’s social network decreases the likelihood of death, but having a larger or closer group of friends does not.

“We found that older individuals who had more family in their network, as well as older people who were closer with their family were less likely to die,” said James Iveniuk, the lead author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

A Rush University study showed that housebound seniors are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as more active individuals.

The AARP Foundation and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) partnered to create the Connect2Affect campaign to combat loneliness and isolation. You can even take a risk assessment to gauge your risk for being isolated and alone.

To conquer this communities have to rally together. But there are things we all can do for ourselves that can keep us more socially connected. I spoke recently on the Charlotte Today Show about some of these things.

1. Use Social Technology for Home-Bound People There are people who simply cannot leave their homes because of health conditions. So the socialization must come to them. Certainly we need more intergenerational programs in the community that encourage people to visit with homebound elders. But don’t sell older people short. They have a great capacity to learn. My late mom knew how to use an ipad and was on Facebook. She passed at 94! So tools like Skype and Zoom can help people connect with others. That could be family but it could just as well be a charity they volunteer for or a board they serve on where, while their physical involvement is limited, their knowledge and input are most welcome.

2. Use Meetup.com to Find People Who Are Interested in the Things You Are Using sites like Meetup.com, you can connect with people who share your interests.

3. Estranged from Family? Do Something About It. I have written a blog for some eight or more years. With more than 1,500 posts and 500 video blogs, you know the one blog that is the most popular? It has to do with reconciling with family members. Check it out.

4. Get Involved in the Arts Go out and sing karaoke with friends! Take an acting lesson. My wife and I have been discovering small theaters all around the Charlotte, NC area where we live. The last play we attended was about two women in a nursing home call Rip Cord. It was hilarious. And the actors? They were “mature” women. We have a group locally called Activate Community Through Theater and it has specific programs for seniors. I bet your community may too.

5. Make a Charity Connection This is charity walk and run season. Want to find one to participate in? Go to the Charity Walks Blog.

In my keynote, The Meaning of Life, I talk about the value of social networks and things you can do to be a better friend and attract more friends. Here’s a sampling.

  • Be a good listener. Friendship is less about you and more about the other person.
  • Be Interested in other people - focus on finding out about them by asking thoughtful questions.
  • Be positive - Positive friends add emotional and health benefits to your life. People who can put it all in perspective and move on are often the ones that have an easier time making friends.
  • Be proactive about helping friends - Be ready to help friends through a difficult time. Friendships sometimes end when one person experiences a rough patch and feels that the other person just wasn't there for them. When a friend is hurting, reach out before your friend needs to ask you for help.
  • Engage with the people you meet - Make an effort to talk to five people per day. The conversations don't have to be long or involved, but by actively engaging others you will be more aware when a new friendship opportunity arises.
  • Be genuinely happy for your friends - Don't get competitive with your friends. Life isn't a race. Celebrate your friend's accomplishments as if they were your own.

Isolation and loneliness can lead to negative health consequences. For example, the health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. We all need to do our part in staying connected to family and friends. It’s hard work but the payoff is long-term.

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