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Social Isolation and Loneliness—The Realities of Modern Life (and what we can do to change that)

It seems to happen to me more frequently, an older adult at the grocery store, or in line at the library, striking up a conversation. On the surface, that might seem normal, and it is, but most of these interactions are more prolonged, with a deeper intention and urgency than I’ve experienced in the past. Maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten older and I’m noticing it more, taking time to pay attention to the nuances of interactions, be they older adults talking with grocery clerks or bank tellers, or in line at a coffee shop chatting with other patrons. There is a tendency to linger, to want to talk longer, to ask questions, to engage.

I share this to illuminate what I witness and experience daily, and their association with what I know through personal and professional experience to be growing issues—social isolation and loneliness—especially among older adults. Many things can contribute to this, of course—health (physical, mental, and emotional), access to health care, transportation, indifference of others, mobility, income, safety, family systems, social networks, geography, housing, ageism, longevity, and more. And yes, I do believe that technology is playing a role, as it can contribute to distraction, disconnection, and less meaningful one-on-one interaction.

In early 2018, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced the creation of a new government role, the Minister of Loneliness. Recognizing the growing public health problems associated with loneliness, this Minister’s role is to develop policies to help fellow Brits overcome loneliness. It’s prompted me to consider how I might act as Minister of Loneliness in my own community (I live in Edmonds and work in Seattle and Bellevue).

How prevalent are loneliness and social isolation?

As we look at these deepening trends, it is important to clarify that social isolation and loneliness are not interchangeable, but they can and do coexist. Social isolation is quantifiable and measured by the number of quality relationships a person has, and whether they have people they can depend on, or not. Loneliness is the subjective feeling of being isolated. It’s an individual’s internal feeling of not being connected to others.

In a six-year study of 1,600 adults, led by a nationally known expert in loneliness in aging, Carla Perissinotto, MD, Associate Chief for Geriatrics Clinical Programs at the University of California, San Francisco, it was found that the majority of people who are lonely are living with other people. It is the quality of relationships that is important, not your physical proximity to others. But Perissinotto is quick to warn us to be careful about assumptions. Living alone doesn’t mean someone is lonely, and it also doesn’t mean they are social isolated.

Participants in the aforementioned study were all 60 years of age and older and followed for six years. In Perissinotto’s study, participants were given a three-item, well-validated loneliness questionnaire. People were asked if they felt left out, isolated and/or lacked companionship.

Participants were defined as lonely if they answered Yes to any of the questions or felt any of these things at any point in time.

Findings from the survey: Loneliness was remarkably prevalent; 43 percent of the 1,600 interviewed reported feeling lonely or experiencing some degree of loneliness.

A bigger health hazard than obesity or smoking

Loneliness and social isolation are recognized as public health problems, some have called them epidemics. Why is this important to acknowledge? The effects of loneliness put people who are less socially connected at higher risk of premature death. They’re more likely to experience disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones.

Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults. To test what we all know anecdotally, the results of a nine-month research trial conducted in care homes in the UK demonstrated that just 10 minutes of one-to-one daily chats improved the well-being of people living with dementia.

Loneliness can have negative health effects similar to those caused by obesity and smoking. And it’s not limited to older adults. A Harris poll of American adults conducted in 2016 reported that nearly one third had experienced loneliness at least once a week. A Study by the British Mental Health Foundation found that young adults, ages 18-34, were more likely to experience loneliness than individuals over 55.

How do we change this?

Be aware. Keep your eyes and ears open. Community members working together and watching out for their older neighbors are essential to reducing social isolation. Reach out with some freshly baked cookies or an invitation to join you for a meal. Offer to take someone for a ride to the grocery store or to run errands. Make an occasional call to say hello and check in. Rake leaves, shovel a walkway, help on garbage and recycling day, and spend some time in conversation. Every little touchpoint makes a difference and lets your neighbor know someone cares.

Senior centers are vibrant places to make connections with others, where you can find everything from exercise classes to book club to cafes to support groups to lectures to communal meals. And increasingly more senior centers, like the Greenwood Senior Center and Northshore Senior Center, have social workers on staff who are available for consultations and can connect individuals with services and supports.

Easy, affordable access to transportation helps, too. Sound Generations offers volunteer transportation and connections to the Hyde Shuttle for Seattle and King County residents. King County Metro also offers assistance with a variety of accessible services. Do you belong to a faith community? Is there an older member who could benefit from a ride that you might provide?

Companionship and connection. Local organizations such as ElderFriends and Friend to Friend America have missions to connect older adults with companions. ElderFriends, part of Full Life Care, is a volunteer-based program that provides companionship, outreach, and advocacy services to isolated older adults throughout Seattle and King County. Friend to Friend America, based in Des Moines, WA, has a similar mission and recruits and trains volunteers in the community to visit lonely and isolated seniors. Enjoy this video from the BBC that tells about monthly tea parties in the UK that help address loneliness.

Village to Village Network. We have a growing number of virtual “villages” in western Washington that are committed to “help their members age in a place of their choosing, closely connected to their communities and with the supports and tools they need to create successful aging of their own design.” Research supports that village members experience reduced isolation, increased independence, and enhanced purpose of life. Visit the Village to Village Network website to see if there is a village that serves your community.

It really does take a village. We all need to be more aware and present on behalf of older adults. The best villages engage postal workers, UPS drivers, grocery store cashiers, librarians, health care providers, bank tellers, maintenance workers, and apartment managers to play a part in making sure our older neighbors are safe, maintaining connections, and feeling a part of the community.

Age Friendly Seattle is an initiative of the City of Seattle that focuses on making improvements in eight areas defined by the World Health Organization—The 8 Domains of Livability—that influence health and quality of life for older adults. Many elements help to reduce social isolation and loneliness.

Friendship Line 800-971-0016 is a 24/7, toll-free crisis line for people aged 60 years and older, and adults living with disabilities. This essential support is offered by the Institute on Aging (IOA), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that focuses on helping older adults preserve dignity, independence, and well-being. The IOA Friendship Line is the only program nationwide that reaches out to lonely, depressed, isolated, frail and/or suicidal older adults. Their trained volunteers specialize in offering a caring ear and having a friendly conversation with depressed older adults.

While this is not a complete list of ways to connect or to help older adults get connected, it can serve as a start. The organizations referenced have been around for a long time. They are dependable, trustworthy supports and resources for older adults and their allies.

In a New York Times commentary entitled “How Social Isolation is Killing Us,” Dr. Dhruv Khuller, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, notes, “A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being. It’s up to all of us—doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities—to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.”

Let’s find ways to more deeply connect with one another. Let’s be aware of and alert to those individuals that are lonely, socially isolated, and hungry for human connection. As for me, I’ll continue to take more time to converse at the library, the grocery store and the cafe when an older adult engages me.

For more information read

  1. “Daily chats improve lives of people with dementia, study says,” by Alex Therrien, BBC News. February 7, 2018

Contributor Keri Pollock directs marketing and communications for Aging Wisdom, an Aging Life Care™ practice (geriatric care management) serving King and south Snohomish Counties. Pollock serves on the Age-Friendly Seattle Task Force, the Creative Aging Programs Advisory Committee at the Frye Art Museum, and on the Alzheimer’s Association Discovery Conference planning committee.