The COVID-19 pandemic brought to light many things, but perhaps one of the biggest realizations was how important social interaction is to mental health. Everyone felt isolated and cut off from the world, and many people felt lonely and even depressed as a result.
These effects were especially felt amongst the senior community, who were already less social to begin with. Seniors had a higher risk of contracting the disease, so even the limited public interactions younger people were able to have weren’t possible for them. As a result, many seniors suffered a “double pandemic” by having to deal with the virus itself and the isolation it brought. In a Place for Mom survey, 62% of family caregivers said their senior loved one suffered physically or emotionally because of isolation during the pandemic.
Part of the reason seniors felt more of these effects was technology. While younger adults were able to socialize with others using tools like Zoom and social media, many seniors weren’t savvy enough to utilize those platforms. As a result, they missed out on opportunities to socialize that helped many of us feel less lonely and isolated.
In this article, we’ll discuss the effects of loneliness and isolation, why socialization is especially crucial for seniors, and ways to go about it.
The impact of loneliness and isolation
When you think of the possible causes for declining health, feeling lonely is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. But it can have more consequences than you might think. The National Institute of Aging (NIA) explains:
“Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
NIA researcher Steve Cole, Ph.D., conducted research focusing on different ways that loneliness affects how your mind and body function. He found that loneliness can alter cells in the immune system and promote inflammation. And inflammation that lasts too long increases the risk of chronic diseases.
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” Dr. Cole said. “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
Why socialization is beneficial
According to the CDC, “older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.” That’s why socialization is so important for seniors. Social interaction not only combats those negative effects, but it has a wide array of mental and physical health benefits:
- Increased quality (and length!) of life – “Studies show that loneliness and senior health issues have been correlated and that loneliness is a risk factor of functional decline, and death in older people.” Socialization also promotes purpose, and when we have something to do, somewhere to go, and someone counting on us, it makes life more fulfilling.
- Reduced blood pressure – High blood pressure is a major risk factor in serious conditions like heart disease and stroke. Socialization helps reduce blood pressure, which in turn lowers the risk for those conditions.
- Reduced risk of Alzheimer’s and increased brain health – Loneliness can raise the risk of cognitive decline. Research in JAMA’s Psychiatry journal showed that the “risk of Alzheimer’s Disease was more than doubled in lonely persons compared with persons who were not lonely.” Socialization, on the other hand, boosts cognitive function, according to a University of Rochester Medical Center study.
- Confidence and self-esteem – People who report feeling lonely often have lower confidence and self-esteem. Socializing and feeling like you belong helps boost confidence, and getting positive feedback from people we care about plays a role in our self-esteem. All of which helps our overall mental health!
Ways to increase socialization
Socialization doesn’t have to be complicated. There are simple things you can do as a family caregiver to help your parent get the interaction they need to stay healthy.
- More family time – This one seems obvious, but what family caregivers often neglect to do is bring in other family members to help with their parent’s care. They often try to shoulder the burden on their own and don’t want to bother others to help. But encouraging other members of the family to make time to visit with your parent is not only great for them socially, but it’s good for you as a caregiver. Everyone needs a break from time to time, and your parent will appreciate some variety!
- Hire a caregiver – If you don’t have as much time as you’d like to spend with your loved one, consider bringing in a professional caregiver to help. Companionship is one of the main duties of an in-home caregiver, and it can be a part-time situation. Many of our caregivers have formed strong bonds with their clients and are considered an extended part of the family.
- Teach them the tech – It may take some time, but it’s worth helping your parent learn the ropes of some technology basics. That way if they can’t leave their home they’re still able to connect socially. Tablets and phones made especially for seniors can help them navigate it more easily.
- Sign them up for a class or club – Shared interests are a great way to make social connections and feel like you’re part of a group. Having fun is good for your health, too, and bonus points if exercise is involved!
- Get them a pet – Animals count as companions! Having a pet reduces feelings of loneliness and decreases stress among seniors. For more information on the health benefits of pets, check out this article.
Of all the ways to help boost your parent’s health, getting social is probably the simplest and most fun! There are tons of health benefits, and you can help them avoid the negative health impact of loneliness and social isolation.
- Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions – CDC
- Health Benefits of Socialization – Home Care Assistance
- Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks – National Institute on Aging
- Facts About Senior Isolation and the Effects of Loneliness That Will Stun You – A Place for Mom