Express Yourself: Social connections and aging

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By Wally Pearce, Winters Elder Day Council
Special to the Express

As we age, we gain essential experiences and insights. But every day, millions of older adult’s struggles with challenges such as declining health, the loss of loved ones, and for some, the feelings of isolation. These experiences, and others, sometimes lead to chronic loneliness, and with COVID-19 dramatically increasing social isolation and critical health vulnerabilities, there’s a need for families and communities in helping to improve social connections.

Social loneliness refers to a lack of community or friends, while emotional loneliness refers to a lack of strong connections to family. In a society that values physical appearance and beauty, older individuals may isolate themselves due to fears surrounding these youthful expectations. Losing a home or income can also contribute to social isolation.

At times, loneliness may pose a noteworthy threat to older adults because of its associated emotional, cognitive, and physical health outcomes. That’s why viable community-based senior services, caregivers, relatives, families, and even neighbors, can play an important role in making a difference in the lives of older adults who struggle with loneliness.

According to the National Poll on Healthy Aging, a nationally recognized organization, before the COVID-19 pandemic, one in three adults in the U.S. ages 50 to 80 lacked regular companionship. Additionally, the Global Health Research and Policy states that 43 percent of older adults self-reported feeling lonely.

Results from the June 2020, United States Senate Special Committee on Aging dealing with COVID-19, state that social isolation, depression, and anxiety have worsened due to COVID-19 with their study finding 73 percent of older adults reported feelings of loneliness.

As described by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, Medicine, chronicles that loneliness exacerbates existing health conditions among older adults and may lead to major risk factors and outcomes: memory and cognitive decline, impaired physical well-being, increased risk for developing conditions such as diabetes or heart failure, and an increased risk of hospitalization and premature mortality.

The World Health Organization asserts that health refers to an individual’s state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. As such, living longer does not always equate to a high quality of life. Depression and decreased enjoyment of life are common in older adults who are lonely and experiencing chronic illnesses.

And, according to the National Council on Aging, 80 percent of older adults in the US have one or more chronic illnesses, and approximately 77 percent have two or more. In older adults, chronic illness may lead to loneliness and social isolation. Older adults experiencing complications from physical illness and immobility are more likely to stay home rather than socialize, causing feelings of isolation and loneliness. They may also experience cognitive decline and dementia. However, older adults who are active and have regular social interactions have a lower incidence of various chronic illnesses.

A supportive social network helps to protect older adults from depression and anxiety, decrease morbidity, and increase their lifespan. Consistent social interactions also decrease the risk of cognitive dysfunction and dementia.

When chronic illness impairs the ability to perform activities of daily living older adults face challenges related to walking, toileting, bathing, navigating stairs, preparing meals, and driving. Chronic illness may also interfere with interactions with friends and family and a relationship with a partner.

Unfortunately, many older adults outlive their spouse, relatives, and friends and may even be separated from their children. Additionally, older adults who belong to the LGBTQ+ community may also be at an increased risk for loneliness because they may be single, without children, and might have trouble coping with societal stigmas regarding identity.

The medical community also suggests that approximately 25 percent of older adults suffer from depression, anxiety disorder, or dementia in the US, and about 5 million older adults have substance use disorders. In addition, and according to various studies, adults over age 85 experience the highest suicide rate of any age range.

Local support groups may be available, but socially isolated individuals are often not always aware of them, and far too many older adults may adapt to an everyday routine of being alone and subsequently lose interest in and energy for outside activities. They may even feel too overwhelmed to break out of this routine.

By just making a simple phone-call to a senior citizen, that humble act of kindness can often raise the emotional state of someone dealing with loneliness.

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