Prevent isolation for better health

Created date

November 29th, 2019
Three women sit around a table socializing.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center published an in-depth report about older adults living alone in the U.S. They examined demographics and also focused on the well-being of these seniors. 

Overall, according to the study, about 25% of Americans over age 65 live alone. About 32% are women and 18% are men.  

Factors associated with isolation

A benefit of aging is supposed to be having more time for traveling, hobbies, or volunteering, but the Pew researchers found that many seniors living alone—especially men—say they spend less time doing these things. So it’s not surprising to learn that older men have been shown to be more likely to experience social isolation.

Some people do not have a circle of good friends and are perfectly happy, but having friends seems to be an important factor for preventing isolation. In the Pew study, about 70% of women reported satisfaction with friendships, but only half of men did. 

Contact with family is another factor that keeps seniors socially involved. According to the Pew study, seniors living alone are less likely to have contact with their children and grandchildren, compared to seniors who live with other people.

Seniors who live alone and are ill have a high risk of becoming isolated, especially if they have a chronic condition that makes it difficult to leave the home.

Effects of isolation 

Isolating yourself can be very harmful to your health and functioning. Research shows that social isolation is equally harmful as other risk factors for poor health such as obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. In addition, a lack of socializing is directly linked to decreased immune function, worsening cognitive function, and poor physical functioning.

Preventing isolation may be as important to your health as a nutritious diet and regular exercise. “Being actively engaged with other people actually improves your health,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. “Research shows that spending time with others can lower the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression.” 

It can also have an effect on your longevity. Researchers reviewed over 100 studies and found that people who are active socially are 50% less likely to die prematurely.

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what mechanisms are in play that link socializing to better health. One leading theory is that people who socialize are more active, and physical activity is absolutely necessary for good overall health. Being with other people can also boost your mood, which has been strongly associated with good physical, as well as emotional, health.   

Barriers to socializing

Maybe your health prevents you from going out. This is where your doctor may be able to help. Many chronic health conditions and medications can result in fatigue or other unpleasant symptoms. Perhaps your vision and hearing have worsened so gradually that you aren’t aware of the effect these deficits have on your social life. “Your doctor can give you a thorough checkup and review your medications to determine if there is a way to minimize symptoms and make it easier for you to socialize,” Tam says. 

If transportation is a problem, check out local services for seniors. Most public transportation systems have special accommodations for seniors with health problems. Some places of worship have volunteers who will give seniors a ride.

Good social activities for seniors

A large study of adults age 57 to 85 found that the three most popular social activities were talking with neighbors, participating in faith-based activities, and volunteering.  Other senior-friendly activities include dining with others, playing bingo, taking walks, and caring for grandchildren. 

Not everyone enjoys mingling. “Some people are introverts and that’s not likely to change,” Tam says. “Keeping in touch with family is a simple solution. Having regular meals now and then is a good way to stay socially connected.”

Choose a hobby that you enjoy or have enjoyed in the past. “Figure out how to do what you like with other people,” Tam says. “Getting at least one foot in the door makes it easier to become accustomed to interpersonal interaction.”

For example, if you like to read, join a book club. If you like walking or bird watching, take someone with you, or join a like-minded group.

Introverts may find it easy to use social media to meet people. “Exercise caution when forming friendships online,” Tam says. “Many seniors have been duped and suffered serious consequences.” 

Technology has been a boon for homebound seniors, but it doesn’t take the place of being with other people. “Interacting directly in person has been found to be more beneficial than interacting via technology,” says Matt Narrett, M.D., chief medical officer for Erickson Living.

Being socially connected can be a real challenge, and the process of isolation tends to start gradually. The key is recognizing feelings of loneliness so you can start to take action. 

A helpful resource

The Eldercare Locator is a public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging. It can connect you to local resources for seniors, including health services, housing, transportation, and support services. 


Eldercare Locator