Aging and Social Isolation

According to AARP, a full 87% of senior Americans would prefer to remain in their own home as they age. The movement to “age in place” has gained in popularity, particularly with baby-boomers who are determined to set their own course with their own rules as they move into their senior years.

As our aging population grows, an industry of supportive services has followed, providing equipment and personalized assistance to allow individuals to receive the care they need at home. Chair lifts help seniors make their way to the second floor. Fully prepared meals are delivered to the front door. Aides assist with all aspects of personal care. And medications arrive in the mail.

Excellent health care can certainly be provided at home. However, what seniors and their families often fail to consider is the social aspect of aging in place. As individuals age, the neighborhood changes, friends fall away, and family members are not always available. The older adult who is determined to remain at home, may find long, empty days with little human contact. Transportation challenges only add to the isolation. When not well planned, aging-in-place can be a lonely existence.

For seniors, isolation and loneliness can increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The brain needs social activity and simulation to function at its best. In addition, those who live alone are more vulnerable to financial exploitation and abuse. Studies show that seniors living on their own often have poor eating habits, resulting in poor nutrition and a higher risk of chronic disease. Loneliness leads to depression, which can put the older adult at risk for sleep problems, anxiety and an overall poor quality of life.

What can be done? In planning for retirement and future care, keep in mind that socialization and meaningful activity can be as important as health care. For the individual who is determined to age-in-place, the local senior center can provide activity and new friendships. A fairly new concept of Neighborhood Villages is sweeping the country in an effort to help seniors stay connected in their communities. The Village-to-Village Network is an organization that promotes this concept of neighbors helping neighbors with chores, lawn work, and even friendly visitors. Membership fees are usually affordable, and the concept works well.

For seniors who need additional assistance, adult day care centers provide activity and the opportunity for socialization in a structured and safe environment. Typically, these facilities offer transportation, meals, and medical oversight along with meaningful activity in an effort to deter isolation and loneliness.

In the home, aides and companions can be hired, not only to provide health care, but to also offer activity and a kind human touch. In many cases, the aide can provide transportation to escort the older adult out into the community for social activity or meals.

Ultimately, the move to a retirement community can often serve to provide the social interaction and sense of community that the older adult is lacking. In most senior residential communities, activities are plentiful with an easy opportunity to find new friends. Meals are eaten in a congregate setting, thereby improving the poor eating habits associated with living alone. For many, the move from an isolating home environment to a retirement community can be a positive, life-changing experience.

As individuals transition into their senior years, it is important to not only consider access to good health care, but also the on-going need for socialization and meaningful activity. While this can take place at home or in a retirement community, it is important to have a plan that includes social interaction.