Social isolation and the epidemic of loneliness among older Americans

Jun-26-2017

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The 2010 U.S. census found that 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, live alone. Now that the Baby Boomer generation is entering its senior years, we can expect this number to increase dramatically. The negative health effects of loneliness could well become an epidemic, if it isn't already. While the term "epidemic" may sound misplaced, it signals an increasing concern among health professionals about the growing impact social isolation poses for seniors.

Studies routinely find that social isolation and its resulting loneliness has far-reaching effects on both mental and physical health. A 2010 Brigham Young University study found that friends, family, and close neighbors can improve our odds of survival by 50 percent. In fact, the study found that low social interaction compares on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is more harmful than not exercising, and is twice as harmful as obesity.         

Decades back, people commonly lived in a community all their lives and knew everyone who lived around them. Such communities still exist, but they're increasingly rare.

Today, people tend to connect with others through business dealings, memberships in organizations and clubs, and social media. Once upon a time, the church served as a unifying force in communities, but a 2016 study by Pew found 49 percent of people in the U.S. today rarely or never go to church.

People with busy work schedules and long commutes don't have spare time to sit on the porch, if there is one, and wave at passersby and establish friendships. Truthfully, many of us have little contact with the people who live next door or down the street. Maybe none at all.

According to the Census Bureau, the average American now moves 11.7 times in a lifetime. Families split, children leave home. People move across the country, even around the globe, in search of work opportunities, often leaving parents behind to join the growing ranks of "elderly orphans."

"I bake new neighbors bread to welcome them, and they never say hello to me again," laments Mrs. S.F. Kistier in a June 7, 2017 editorial in www.thefederalist.com.

She writes that she has lived in her current neighborhood for 22 years.

"In this neighborhood, I have been very lonely. The younger lady next door has two adult kids and she waves. It's something, as no one else waves, often leaving me feeling invisible."

Mrs. Kistier likely gives voice to how millions of older Americans feel about their neighborhoods. Google terms like "epidemic of loneliness" or "elderly social isolation," and you'll pull up a slew of facts and articles that describe a growing problem for older adults.

What are some solutions to counter social isolation among older folks? We'll explore that topic in a future blog. Still, if you're over 55, the prospect of social isolation poses a bigger question:  Do you have a plan for your elderly years that will keep you from being lonely and feeling invisible?