Strong social connections are a vital part of life for most people but, as our estate planning attorneys have seen firsthand, as we age our relationships usually end up changing or disappearing altogether. Unfortunately, a lack of connections to friends, family, and the outside world can cause major problems for senior citizens.
A recently published NPR article highlights the concerns that geriatricians and social service providers across the country have about the impact of loneliness among the elderly. Their worries have real merit, as evidence from several studies show links between emotional isolation in senior citizens to physical inactivity and poor sleep, which can eventually lead to more serious health problems. Even worse, according to the AARP website, the health threat of loneliness and isolation in senior citizens is almost equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Indeed, the article states that studies show that elderly people who feel lonely are at greater risk of high blood pressure, poor immune function, memory loss, strokes, and heart disease. One such study from 2012 showed that 43 percent of people over 60 report feeling lonely. The study also found that senior citizens who felt lonely and isolated had a higher risk of death, even if they didn’t live alone or hadn’t been diagnosed with depression or Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a UCSF researcher and geriatrician who authored the study said, “If someone reports feeling lonely, they are more likely to lose their independence and are at greater risk of dying solely from being lonely.”
There are several hurdles in helping the elderly overcome loneliness, but one of the most challenging remains safe and reliable transportation options. Once seniors lose the ability to drive, affordable and accessible transportation can be very difficult to find, and those with fragile health conditions or are nervous to leave the house alone end up just staying inside.
Fortunately, there are more efforts being made to help build new social connections and reduce isolation for elderly Americans without them having to take on the risk and burden of traveling outside. These efforts include roommate matching services in various states, non-profit organizations that partner volunteers with senior citizens for visits and check-ins, and call-in hotlines to simply allow users to chat and share their feelings.
The AARP Foundation also recently launched a nationwide online network titled Connect2Affect that allows seniors to learn about the risks of isolation, do a loneliness self-assessment test, and reach out to peers that also feel disconnected.
Although there isn’t much research done about the effectiveness of the outreach programs yet, the AARP, the Gerontological Society of America, and other organizations are hoping to create more awareness and understanding of these issues in the meantime. As chief medical officer of AARP Services Dr. Charlotte Yeh said, “Loneliness is a huge issue we don’t talk enough about.”
As estate planning attorneys that work with senior citizens on a daily basis, we hope that this information can help you or your family member understand the risks of isolation and loneliness, as well as the benefits of building more social connections.