Loneliness is a challenge we all face at some times of our lives, even when we’re not actually alone. Loneliness can impose an extreme mental and physical burden, taking a large toll on mental well-being, but also on health and longevity as well as the ability to carry on activities of daily living.
According to doctors at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, studies show that persistent loneliness “causes accelerated aging with multiple health consequences.” They add that loneliness is “associated with problematic changes in the cardiovascular, hormonal and immune systems.”
Among the factors that give rise to loneliness in seniors, along with chronic illness and reduced ability to get around and manage for oneself, are physical isolation, deaths of loved ones and other lapses in emotional support networks, which can happen quickly and deprive a senior of a positive outlook. For older adults whose horizons may be shrinking due to the loss of loved ones and decreased mobility, it is possible to adjust and continue to enjoy a vibrant life.
Effective ways to cope with increasing isolation and loneliness among seniors do exist. Here are some that are widely recommended by medical authorities and other experts on aging:
Venture into the community. Adult education courses, houses of worship, senior centers, volunteer charity programs, civic affairs committees, even grass-roots political action groups offer a huge bounty of opportunity to get out and meet people with like-minded interests. New friendships are waiting to be made, not to mention the benefits of meeting new challenges and the sense of achievement that comes with new learning or promoting a good cause. Do not overlook all of the ways your local community makes it possible to meet new people and relieve the sense of isolation.
Join a book club. Did you think that book clubs are an artifact of a more genteel past? That would be a misconception. According to Publisher’s Weekly magazine, the 145-year-old authority on the publishing industry, book clubs are flourishing, even amidst the growing presence of e-reading devices. In fact, many book stores encourage and support the clubs. It’s a venerable institution that remains a fertile source of new friends and acquaintances.
Draw upon past interests. At a much younger age, perhaps you had an interest in photography, weather science, archeology, or other fascinating topics or activities. Many people do, but then largely abandon their avocational passions as their chosen profession begins to dominate their time. Revisiting those early interests now can lead you to connect with people who share them, injecting a new vitality to your daily experience.
Consider a part-time job. Employment in the community can reinvigorate your daily routine and ease the sense of isolation. Many employers ascribe good work characteristics to retired seniors and are happy to have them on the job. If the work is in retail, you may enjoy the frequent contact with the public.
Make a canine connection. If you’re able to care for a dog, you’ll find that in many ways, the dog returns the favor, with an emotional bond that conveys at least some of the benefits of human bonding. Caring for the animal also provides a sense of purpose. It can work with a cat also, but Fido bestows a bonus: a dog regularly gets you out of the house and into the street, where you get exercise and an opportunity to encounter neighbors and other dog walkers.
Make use of local services. If your ability to get around is limited because of a disability, find out what services are available to keep you mobile. Government or charity-sponsored paratransit, such as Access-A-Ride in New York City, can help you overcome the physical challenges of staying connected to the community.
The effects of aging and chronic illness can make the world seem smaller. However, by taking a good look at what your community offers, it’s possible for seniors to maximize opportunities to cope, find companionship and connection, and retain independence.