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Too much time alone can harm your health

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October 25th, 2011

Having a social network is not just about feeling good, says Barbara Morris, M.D., medical director at Wind Crest, an Erickson Living community in Highlands Ranch, Colo. Scientific data shows that supportive relationships with friends and relatives increases your health-related quality of life. During their golden years, most people experience significant life changes such as retirement, health problems, and the death of spouses or loved ones. But later in life is when most people need support, and it is often lacking. The United Neighborhood Houses of New York reports that seniors who are most at risk during emergencies are those who are socially isolated. Approximately one-third of older Americans live alone, says Lauren Watral, M.S.W., geriatric care manager at Raleigh Geriatric Care Management in Raleigh, N.C., and member of the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers. The cause and effect of isolation can go both ways, she explains. People become isolated because they are ill, or people become ill because they isolate themselves. Some people don t even realize there s a problem. They may have physical limitations such as arthritis that have gradually kept them from getting out, says Forrest Hong, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., chair of the National Social Workers Association s Specialty Practice on Aging Committees and vice president of Your Care Manager, Inc., in Los Angeles. Isolation can also occur because of distance or transportation issues that make it harder to connect.

Solitude has consequences

People who are socially isolated tend to be physically inactive. One government survey showed that Americans age 65 and older spend up to half of their leisure time watching television. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and many other health conditions, Morris says. When people are asked to rate their physical health and well-being, people who don t have social networks tend to rate lower, Morris explains. Research also shows that there s an increased risk of depression, anxiety, dementia, and death in these individuals.

How to make changes

There are some people who isolate themselves because they prefer solitude. On the other hand, there are those who are alone and want to socialize more but don t know where to start, Watral says. You don t have to go to formal galas on a regular basis, Watral explains. Simply talking on the phone or writing letters to family and friends can make you feel more connected and give you a mental lift. Computers can also be a good tool, she adds. If it s hard for you to get out, using social networks and communicating by email can help you feel more involved. To lower your risk of becoming socially isolated in the event of a health condition or other major life change, nurture the relationships you already have. Friends can help you cope with the aging process, Hong says.

Stick to what you know

How you choose to increase your socialization is entirely up to you. You know what your preferences are and how much contact you want with others and in what context, Watral says. For instance, if you ve always preferred to talk to friends on the phone rather than pack your calendar with lunch dates, then there s no reason to change that as long as you re happy with it. Interaction is the most important component. Share your talents or abilities with the community. I know a woman who started crocheting blankets and donating them to a charitable organization, Watral says. Although she lives alone and can t get out much, she feels emotionally connected to the community because she s sharing her talents. If your doctor knows you well, he/she may be able to offer some specific suggestions about what you could do, Morris says. Social isolation can also sometimes be treated with medication or counseling.

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