Loneliness Among the Elderly: The Importance of Community for Seniors

Doris remembers her first protest as a young woman in Washington. Marching through the streets of a bustling downtown, arm in arm with her fellow protesters, she was proud to fight on the front lines of women’s liberation in the 1960s. Now at 86-years-old, Doris does not let the calm atmosphere of her longtime home in the Georgia mountains keep her from protesting the issues she has remained passionate about since her 20s.  In fact, staying at home and reconnecting with the community she has lived in for the past 50 years helps to fuel her sense of purpose and meaning as she matures – and keeps her from falling victim to the dangers of loneliness among the elderly.

The In-Home Care Decision

Six years ago, Doris found herself widowed and lonely. The large home in which she had raised her children was empty. The stairs to reach her second-story bedroom were painful to climb because of knee and hip operations. She struggled to reach high cupboards as scoliosis compressed her spine. She needed help navigating the day-to-day needs of staying in her home, and she needed to make a decision about the type of life she wanted to live.

After much reflection and long conversations with friends and family, Doris chose to stay in her home – an option that became possible with the help of household modifications and in-home care. Although thrilled to be staying in the house she calls home, something was still missing. She found herself alone all day with the exception of her caregivers.

Loneliness Among the Elderly

Loneliness among the elderly is approaching epidemic proportions - the AARP estimates that 51 percent of people over the age of 75 live alone, and that as many as 6 million adults over the age of 65 have a disability that prevents them from leaving their home without help. A 2012 study by researchers at the University of San Francisco confirms the implications of the AARP’s research, finding that 43 percent of people over 60 report feelings of loneliness due to being alone or confined in the home.

Feelings of loneliness, defined as “a mismatch between the quantity and quality of social relationships that we have, and those that we want,” can be attributed to personal factors, and societal institutions such as:

  1. The loss of loved ones
  2. Poor health conditions
  3. Sensory loss that make socializing difficult
  4. Poor public transportation systems
  5. Lack of elderly-friendly infrastructure (ramps, benches, public restrooms, etc.)

Risks of Loneliness

Regardless of cause, loneliness is often painful and difficult to live with. More than a fleeting and unwelcome emotion, chronic loneliness is a serious risk to physical and emotional health. Shockingly, the overall impact of loneliness on mortality rate is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, it increases the risk of developing the following:

  1. Obesity and high blood pressure
  2. Physical disabilities
  3. Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol (this affects the production of white blood cells and reduces the ability to fight infections)
  4. Depression
  5. Cognitive decline
  6. Dementia

In fact, loneliness among the elderly results in a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia. All of these conditions influenced by loneliness culminate in a general difficulty with daily activities and increased death rates over the course of 6 years.

Community-Building Resources

Although in-home care plays a vital role in keeping elderly people engaged in socializing and daily living activities, it is important to utilize a full scale of resources to remain connected to a community. According to the organization Action for Happiness, being connected in a community has a big impact on individual happiness and community happiness as a whole. Another study published in Psychology Today shows that increasing the number of interactions people have on a daily basis increases a sense of happiness and belonging in a community, even if the interactions are as simple as speaking to the postman or saying hello to a stranger on the street.

For Doris, reconnecting to her local community was essential to combating her loneliness. She began taking literature courses at a nearby college, reached out to a volunteer organization she had worked with when she was younger, and formed a classical music group by placing an ad in the paper.

Last weekend, she reconnected with her roots and values as she marched with other elderly people down the streets of her otherwise quiet town – not the big protests of her youth, but still a chance to express who she is and what she believes in with the company of friends and neighbors. “I hadn’t been to a protest since 2000,” she said with a grin. “It was exhilarating to stand with my sisters and continue fighting the good fight.”

Although Doris may be feistier than your average octogenarian, she found a community of like-minded people through effort – a new group that will add happiness and years to her life.

Luckily, as the stigma of loneliness among the elderly begins to fade, the resources to combat it increase. Explore the resources below to see if any suit the needs of you or your loved one.

  • Friendship Line – A 24-hour call-in helpline for those who just want a friendly ear and good conversation
  • Administration on Aging – Created under 1965 legislation to authorize state grants for community services for the elderly
  • Shepherd’s Centers – A network of interfaith community-based organizations that help elderly people find purpose and meaning throughout their mature years
  • Eldercare Locator – Directory for general services for the elderly, including community networks
  • National Center for Creative Aging – Connects elderly people and caregivers to communities and lifelong learning opportunities
  • SeniorCorps – National service that pairs elderly people with mentoring opportunities
  • Local resources – Check your local library or newspaper for free events, clubs, and opportunities that suit the needs and interests of you or your loved one
  • University or college courses – Many institutes of higher education offer continuing education classes for the elderly or allow elderly community members to audit courses for a small fee

If you or your loved one could use help to remain at home, American In-Home Care refers qualified and compassionate care providers that come to your home and can perform a variety of services, including companionship and socialization, and help with daily household activities. Contact us today at 1-844-505-0004 for more information and to schedule your free in-home consultation.