Loneliness is something we all experience. For instance, we may find that we don’t have as much in common with our partner after our kids have grown-up and left the house. Or we may have retired and miss the social interaction we once had with our co-workers. Loneliness seems to be a part of life; however, it doesn't need to take over our lives and negatively impact our physical and psychological health.
A recent study completed at The University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) related loneliness to increased risk of physical illness and mortality. The study incorporated 1,600 senior participants over a six-year period. The results determined that if the participants were lonely there were increased health incidents and death.
“About 43 percent of the adults reported feeling lonely at least some of the time. Of those seniors, 23 percent died over the six-year study, compared to 14 percent of the participants who weren't lonely – a 45 percent increase. The lonely seniors had a 59 percent greater risk of suffering a decline in function, which was defined as being less mobile or less able to take care of daily activities like bathing.” (Erin Aliday, June 19, 2012, Loneliness lethal for seniors, UCSF study says).
Dr. Marci Teresi, medical director of the memory clinic at Kaiser Santa Clara said, “They (seniors) start focusing on things that they can’t do, and they focus on pain. That just perpetuates their decline . . . I’ve had people tell me they feel like they’re sort of done with life.” This can leave people open to experiencing pain and physical discomforts that they might not normally have considered in their everyday lives.
Part of the issue is that we routinely discard our seniors. These folks work hard all their lives, feeling productive, making good friends, and having set schedules that require them to be at work or at their kid’s band concert. Then they retire. Gone are the schedules, the friends from work, the personal rewards from an active life. Isolation begins to set in and we can see the pattern change from an active, vibrant, productive person to one who sits around during the day, watching more TV, refusing social invitations (when they do come around), and feeling physically less capable because they are suddenly “old.” It’s a short leap to experiencing more illness and physical problems, not to mention the psychological issues related to isolationism.
Yet, getting older doesn't need to mean a life of loneliness. There are numerous ways to stay active and feel alive. For example:
- Reach out to old friends and make new ones. In today’s highly evolved techno world, staying in touch is easier than ever. (I have a friend who recently had her 88 year old uncle from Virginia reach out and ask her to Skype with him. Now they have their monthly 15 minute Skype session. Ends up they both are having a ball with it!)
- Volunteer more. On a personal note, I can tell you that as I was winding down from my responsibilities at Visiting Angels, I was concerned that I would lose my focus in life. I feared not being connected to anything significant and potentially becoming despondent. Well, I had my sailing, but I wanted/needed more than that so I once again began to volunteer. Now I spend 10-20 hours a week volunteering with developmentally challenged adults (where I began my social work career) and act as a mentor to a young man through a program at Yale. I’m busier now than I was at work!
- Go back to school. Many seniors are going back to school to either get that degree they never were able to achieve due to work or family responsibilities or learn about things they always wanted to know more about. Classes in computers, bird watching, astronomy, and cooking, for example, are all on the rise and being filled with seniors looking to just learn.
- Work with pets. Recently I was at a farmer’s market in Vermont and ran across a women walking a beautiful Golden Retriever. We began to chat and I learned she was retired and started to take her love of dogs to a different level by having her dogs trained to help the elderly. Her dogs now have been placed in many seniors’ homes where they act as watch dogs, help to turn on and off the lights, and even answer the door. Amazing!
- Join an exercise group. Many, many seniors have moved to joining exercise groups; such as swimming, jazzercise, dance lessons, and walking groups. This is a great way to stave off physical maladies and make social contacts.
Getting old doesn't mean your life has ended. Yes, you may need to slow down a bit, you may need to pay more attention to both your physical and psychological needs, and you may even need to learn how to take some social risks. But life doesn't end when you retire! And, you don’t need to be lonely as you age.