THE BLOG
04/17/2014 10:10 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Aging at Home: Will You Be Lonely?

Most people say they want to age at home, but there's a funny thing about that. Although folks want to stay in familiar surroundings to be near friends and family, too many people as they get older find themselves stranded in their own neighborhoods, suffering from a shrinking social network.

In this first post of three on isolation among the aged, we're going to explore this topic. We'll learn why, for older adults, isolation is a big and growing problem, how it affects their health, what we can do about it, and the paradox of aging at home: can it actually foster isolation?

We'll learn from AARP Foundation's Walter Woods, a vice president, programs--Isolation Impact Area. He's been studying this subject and spearheading new initiatives to help older people get connected.

"Isolation is made up of social connectedness and perceived isolation or loneliness, both objective and subjective parts," says Woods. Academics, policymakers, and practitioners assess it by the size and value of a person's social network, and the self-reported sense of loneliness. "We believe that about 1 in 5 people 50 and older are at risk," says Woods.

At risk of what, exactly?

At risk of losing "supportive friends and family, meaningful activities in which to engage, opportunities to socialize, and the necessary support and resources to be able to maintain your health -- such as transportation and access to health and other information," he says. "You might also feel lonely and left out."

"Either way, there are serious, sometimes deadly consequences. It's important for all of us to build and maintain both support systems and interests or activities that engage us throughout our lives," says Woods.

As of 2012, the National Council on Aging estimated that about 6.7 million people, some 17 percent of the American population over age 65, would be considered "isolated."

Aging itself is the #1 risk factor because "we're all going to face the natural but still difficult physical and emotional challenges of aging," says Woods.

Disability is by far the largest contributor, with language differences or difficulties and/or geographic barriers also factors. For example, not being able to walk or see easily, or carry on a conversation (as often happens after a stroke) can be very limiting. Even big-city dwellers can be shut-ins if they're afraid to go out on the street.

Researchers think the numbers of the older "isolated" are rising steadily, for several reasons. Most obviously, there are more old people, living to be older than ever before. Transportation is often limited, the suburbs were built for driving, social systems are inadequate, poverty is an ever-present threat, technology is a mixed bag, and society itself is changing.

How?

"Due to the rapid extension in the human lifespan," Woods explains, "we're now struggling with what role older adults play in our society. When you retire at age 65 but still have perhaps 20 years of life ahead of you, what do you do to continue to feel like you contribute and matter? How do you carve out that meaning and role for yourself while you're facing a culture that tells you you're mostly irrelevant once you get to be a certain age?"

Isolation also has a larger social cost. " Just like everyone else, older adults have skills, talents, knowledge, and much more that can enrich the lives of those around them and improve their communities - except unlike most others around them, older adults also have a lifetime of accumulated experiences to draw upon and in most cases, a lot of free time," says Woods. "Isolation robs communities of all that.

"But, we're hopeful that we'll start to see shifts as the Baby Boomers get older," he continues. "That cohort has rarely let 'business as usual' get in its way, and we expect to see new and creative models for aging start to emerge and proliferate."

Until they do, how can less-old people help older people connect to the larger world?

"Just start a conversation!" says Woods. "And then listen, like you would with anyone else. In other words, stop focusing on how you help someone, which can quickly turn intrusive and patronizing, and just start by being a friend to the individual.

"Then follow your new friend's lead; if he or she asks for help or suggestions, offer them. These might include connecting to the local area agency on aging, a community organization that offers all kinds of services and supports to older adults. You might also identify other community resources and activities such as volunteer opportunities, senior centers, support groups, and more."

In short, healthy aging includes social and emotional well-being ... and as we'll learn in my next post, taking care of social health has significance for physical health as well. Finding ways to boost social connectedness can boost well-being, in a virtuous cycle that's a lot more fun, meaningful and healthy.

When you think about the retirement years, do you worry about becoming lonely? What do you think you could do about it? If you look after older adults, do you see their social worlds shrinking? What impact do you think that has on their health and general quality of life?