The current drive to help older people live at home for longer may be creating higher levels of isolation and loneliness for them. While the move to help our seniors remain in familiar surroundings for as long as possible is generally made with the best intentions, the focus on meeting their physical care – rather than their full range of social and health needs – can lead to negative side effects.
Social isolation and loneliness are precipitated by a number of factors, including living alone, health problems and disability, and sensory impairment such as hearing loss. Major life events such as the death of a spouse have been shown by numerous studies to dramatically increase seniors’ vulnerability to emotional and social isolation.
This is made worse if there is a drop in communication with family or friends at the same time or even a move to an unfamiliar neighborhood. The same is true if family members move for work or other personal reasons, or aging siblings and friends die. An emphasis on senior independence under these circumstances can lead to increased physical isolation and social disengagement, and trigger instability and insecurity.
Research by Australian aged care provider, Whiddon Group, indicates that close to 50 percent of seniors living at home report being lonely, compared with around ten percent in the general population. And a 2014 working paper by the Council on the Ageing (COTA) Victoria says the number of socially isolated people will more than double by 2040, and is likely to increase further as the proportion of seniors in the population increases.
Apart from general feelings of sadness and loneliness, the impact of isolation and the shrinking of social networks can lead to a variety of negative physical and emotional effects in the elderly.
According to a 2012 study in the U.S, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. And a study by The University of Chicago showed major health risks were associated with loneliness; revealing that elderly people who are affected by ‘extreme loneliness’ are up to 14 percent more likely to die a premature death. This is backed up by the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which reported that elderly people who are socially isolated are more likely to die earlier.Decline in physical and mental health
Regardless of the causes of isolation, seniors who feel lonely and isolated are more likely to also report having poor physical and/or mental health, according to a study using data from the U.S National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project.
In the United Kingdom, the Campaign to End Loneliness concludes that the lack of social relationships is as strong a risk factor for mortality as smoking, obesity or the lack of physical activity. Similarly, older adults who are lonely have an increased risk of dying sooner and are more likely to experience a decline in their mobility, compared to those who are not.
Interestingly, but sadly, there is a trend for older people to present to hospital emergency departments, not necessarily due to medical problems but for social interactions, or because they are simply not coping. Australian Government website My Aged Care quotes a study where people classified as ‘lonely’ are 60 percent more likely to access emergency services than those considered ‘non-lonely’ and are twice as likely to enter residential aged care facilities.
In the PNAS study mentioned above, illnesses and conditions such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, high blood pressure and depression are associated with social isolation.
Cognitive decline and risk of dementia
According to the U.S Senior Living Blog, Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist, and psychologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying social isolation for 30 years. One of his frightening findings is that feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance, quicker cognitive decline and the increased risk of dementia.
Vulnerability to elder abuse
A study by the U.S National Center on Elder Abuse shows a connection between social isolation and higher rates of elder abuse. Researchers aren’t certain whether this is because isolated adults are more likely to fall victim to abuse, or it’s a result of abusers attempting to isolate the elders from others to minimize the risk of discovery. Irrespective of the cause, this vulnerability is a cause for concern.
Depression and pessimism
Numerous studies have shown that loneliness is a major risk factor for depression, with increased symptoms in both middle-aged and older adults. Socially isolated seniors are more likely to predict their quality of life will get worse, and are more concerned about needing help from community programs as they get older.
Long term care
According to a report from the Canadian Children’s, Women’s and Seniors Health Branch, loneliness and social isolation are major predictors of seniors needing home care, as well as entering nursing homes.