For many people, the holiday season is the most wonderful time of the year. It brings endless gatherings, holiday shopping and time with family, but this is not the case for everyone. There are some people who are lonely during this time of year and messages of togetherness and family can intensify their feelings of loneliness. They may be reminded of loved ones they are no longer connected with or that they have lost, whether by death or separation. Older adults are particularly at risk for feeling lonely during the holidays, as they may live alone, far from family or be marginalized within their communities.
What is loneliness?
Loneliness and isolation are not synonymous with being alone. Many people are perfectly happy being in solitude and rarely feel lonely. Others may be surrounded by people but still feel lonely. Loneliness is “the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal of social relationships”. Nor is it the same as being depressed, although the two often go hand in hand.
The top risk factors for loneliness and isolation according to the AARP are:
- Lack of accessible and affordable transportation
- Health issues such as untreated hearing loss, dementia, lack of mobility and frailty, which interfere with social connectedness
- Life transitions, such as retirement, becoming a caregiver or losing a spouse or friends
- Ageism and being limited by a lack of opportunities to contribute to one’s community
- Poverty and discrimination because of social status, race, gender identity or sexual orientation
- Living in a rural area where interactions with others are more difficult
Why talk about loneliness?
Loneliness affects your health! Loneliness is not only an emotional issue, but it is linked to health problems and increased mortality and morbidity rates. One study claims that loneliness predicts functional decline and death and its effects are comparable to the damages caused by obesity, smoking and diabetes. Chronic loneliness increases cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and can raise a person’s blood pressure. It can disrupt the body’s ability to produce white blood cells which help fight infections.
How can I help someone who is lonely?
During COAPS trainings, we talk in depth about the importance of social connectedness and the power of reaching out to older adults. Agencies and organizations across the country are also talking about loneliness and ways to help older adults who are lonely during the holidays. Here are a few resources for you or for those with whom you work. Feel free to comment with any additional resources we didn’t post!
1. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) with the AARP Foundation, launched the Home for the Holidays Campaign. Check out their brochure, Expand Your Circles! The brochure includes a simple self-assessment tool to help identify loneliness in older adults.
2. The National Council on Aging has put together a great list of 4 ways to help Seniors combat loneliness! Read the full article here
- Make communication a priority
- Encourage and facilitate social activities through local organizations
- Explore hobbies and other areas of interest
- Identify opportunities to combat loneliness at any time
3. You can find resources through the federal Eldercare Locator, at 800-677-1116
4. Visit www.eldercare.gov
5. If you are a COAPS working with an older adult who seems lonely, encourage them to speak with their doctor about it at their next appointment
6. Finally, get involved with the connect2affect campaign sponsored by the AARP to support and engage older adults in your communit