Loneliness can affect people at any stage of their lives. However, as we get older, the fundamentals of life and death mean we become more vulnerable to loneliness. From retirement to bereavement, ill health, and physical distance from loved ones, common causes of loneliness can mount up as we age.

But what do we mean when we talk about loneliness and social isolation? How bad is loneliness for your health? And what can we do to combat loneliness as we get older? In this post, we will explore the answers to these questions by looking at 4 causes and effects of elderly loneliness.

What do we mean by social isolation and loneliness?

By 75 and above, over 50% of people live alone. Some people may live alone far from their family and friends making it harder to have regular contact with them. Indeed, millions of older people living alone can go 5 or 6 days every week without seeing anyone.

The combination of these factors can usefully describe someone being isolated. However, being alone or isolated doesn’t necessarily mean we feel lonely. So what do we mean when we talk about loneliness?

Whilst being alone can certainly contribute to loneliness, it is still possible to feel lonely when engaged with others. As such, loneliness relates specifically to an emotional response we feel when our need for positive social contact isn’t met. We may also feel lonely if the people around us don’t understand us.

Loneliness is a universal feeling everyone has likely experienced at some time. When it comes to fighting loneliness, the important thing is having quality social contact with people.

4 Causes and Effects of Elderly Loneliness

Numerous studies have shown how social isolation and loneliness can be damaging to your health. For example, Holt-Lundstad’s 2010 study found that the combination of living alone, loneliness, and poor quality social connections is as bad for an individual’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In a later study, they found loneliness increased the risk of death by 29%. Vlatorta, et. al’s 2016 paper found loneliness heightened the risk of dementia, depression, and heart disease.

Here, we outline 4 common causes of loneliness for elderly people. We also consider the effects of each of these causes and some strategies to overcome them.

1. Adjusting to retirement

Whilst retirement should be something we look forward to, many people find adjusting to it hard. From the routine provided by work, daily contact with different people, and a clear sense of direction. Work provides a structure for so much of our lives. When we give this up, we can feel lost, experience a loss of identity, and often have to learn how to combine more time with less money.

The effect of these challenges can lead people to feel lonely. However, new structures and routines can be built into retired life. Extra time, can also offer you the freedom to learn something new.

Learning new things or taking up an exercise class is known to be beneficial for a healthy mind. Finding new ways to engage with others in a meaningful way makes it easier to build quality social contact into your life.

2. Bereavement and loss of companionship

As we get older, more of the people we know and love die. The loss of a partner can cause chronic loneliness. People may also experience this if their partner’s health deteriorates and they have to be moved into a care home.

As we get older, we may also find ourselves living further away from our friends and less able to visit. Lifetime friends may have passed away, adding to a sense of loneliness. Nevertheless, there is value in nostalgia and a longing for the past, it is important and can be beneficial and even overcome loneliness.

Making new connections is a great way to overcome this cause of loneliness. Indeed, finding new passions, or re-igniting old ones, can help combat this cause of loneliness likely to affect us all at some point in our lives. From volunteering to dance, art, or anything else that interests you, by engaging with new people in different ways, we can find ways to cope with elderly loneliness caused by loss.

3. Issues with health

As we get older, we are more likely to experience ill health and mobility decline. Ill health and loss of mobility can make it physically difficult to socialize with others in ways we used to. As such, ill-health can itself be both a cause and effect of loneliness.

This can make it a challenge to distinguish the effects of ill health and mobility issues on social isolation and vice versa. Befriending schemes and intergenerational projects are a great way to help overcome this cause of elderly loneliness and social isolation.

4. Lack of transport

As well as often becoming less physically mobile as age, our ability to drive our own car can sadly be another cause of loneliness. For those living in rural areas, this is particularly challenging as they may not live anywhere near a bus route either. Often, one of our main modes of social contact is through leaving the home.

Therefore, losing the ability to head out can reduce social contact for people and cause them to feel lonely and isolated. Joining an online community can be helpful. It can allow you to discuss issues with your peers. You may also find you feel more connected without having to leave the home.

Loneliness does not discriminate. However, as we get older, we face many more challenges that increase the risk of us feeling lonely. Finding new ways to meaningfully connect with others is the best way to help us defend against the causes and effects of elderly loneliness.

Lottie Miles, M.A.

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