Combatting Social Isolation in Older Adults

Social isolation and loneliness are among top concerns for older adults. Feelings of loneliness are linked to health concerns including depression and cognitive decline, and unfortunately, health issues that many seniors experience like mobility challenges or hearing loss can exacerbate loneliness. In fact, research shows that loneliness is just as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

This is a vicious cycle all too many older adults are experiencing – the National Poll on Healthy Aging found and one in three older adults say they lack regular companionship. Findings from a recent survey conducted by GreatCall support this – with 52% of older adults ages 65+ experience feelings of loneliness a few times a year, 14% reported once a week, and 21% feel lonely every day.

GreatCall, in partnership with Laurie Orlov of Aging in Place Technology Watch, has compiled the latest research and emerging solutions to address social isolation in effort to increase awareness of this global issue. The research, titled “Fighting Social Isolation Among Older Adults” shows:

  • Social isolation is linked to poorer health outcomes and higher healthcare costs, adding an additional $6.7billion in health-related spending, according to AARP
  • Social isolation and loneliness are more prominent in the US than the UK or Japan (The Kaiser Family Foundation)
  • A range of solutions to combat social isolation are emerging in the US and abroad. For instance, the AARP Public Policy Institute now encourages health professionals to screen for loneliness, and we’re seeing more and more intergenerational programs connecting older adults with young people. Abroad, Bloomberg Philanthropies has partnered with cities in the UK and Spain to create apps that connect seniors with friends and family. While many of these are successful in communities, none has emerged as scalable.
  • Technology is emerging as a solution, particularly voice technology, as simply talking with a device can produce positive emotion that helps combat loneliness.

You may be wondering, “How can I help my older family members feel less lonely”?

Our survey found that the answer may be simpler than we think – older adults are truly seeking connection, and it is crucial that their family members and friends are reaching out and putting in effort to maintain connection.

Findings show:

  • 55% said phone calls with family and friends has made the biggest impact in helping them feel less lonely
  • 50% said that having a community or family that plans activities would be most helpful in maintaining social connections
  • Of those experiencing loneliness and depression, 34% choose to talk to a friend about it over a family member or doctor

While technology tools like phones and video chatting can help – as nearly 30% think a cellphone would help maintain social connections – it’s clear that older adults are just looking for a meaningful connection with another human being.

Off-setting feelings of loneliness with entertainment can also provide a benefit. A majority of respondents said that watching TV or a movie, or reading a book or magazine, helps them feel better if they’ve been feeling lonely. This is closely followed by staying active – getting out of the house and going for a walk or taking an exercise class. Programs such as those in community centers, intergenerational connections and lifelong learning institutes provide support across the country.

The first step to combatting loneliness is recognizing the feelings of loneliness. From there, it can be as simple as a phone call to a friend to start feeling better.

To gain deeper understanding of the global problem that is social isolation, and efforts made across the world to combat this serious issue, visit our report, “Fighting Social Isolation Among Older Adults”.

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