In Japan, 65 percent of seniors live with their children, and in Italy, about 39 percent do. But in the United States, the figure is only about 20 percent, despite a rise in multi-generational households in recent years.
It’s just one of many factors that cause approximately one-quarter of Americans aged 65 and older to be socially isolated. People over age 50 are more likely to experience the risk factors for social isolation or loneliness, such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and reduced vision and hearing abilities.
It’s not surprising that being lonely is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. However, a substantial body of evidence shows that social isolation also poses a major risk for physical problems including premature death — a risk level that’s comparable to having high blood pressure, smoking, or being obese.
Social isolation — a lack of social connections — is associated with a 50 percent increased risk for dementia. And loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with higher risks of death, hospitalization, and emergency department visits.
“Senior isolation was a tremendous problem during the pandemic,” notes geriatrician Heidi J. Syropoulos, MD, medical director of Government Markets at Independence Blue Cross (Independence). “It affected people who would never have considered themselves socially isolated before — whose children visited them all the time, or who perhaps had a caregiver that took care of their finances, or brought them a meal once a week, or went grocery shopping for them.”
“During the pandemic, some of those things still happened, but the affected individuals did not see those caregivers. They just dropped off the groceries or a meal at the front door and then left. So social isolation definitely increased during the pandemic. I think it’s gone back down a little bit now, but not to where it was before.”
Technology has helped bridge the loneliness gap to some degree, as seniors have become accustomed to using computers and other devices to keep in touch with family, friends, and health care providers. However, there’s no substitute for face-to-face social contact. For this reason, many local houses of worship and community service organizations are working to fill the gap to help seniors build relationships and maintain their quality of life.
Local Supports Deliver Connection
If you’re feeling socially isolated, the World Health Organization offers three key pieces of advice:
- Get in touch with friends by either meeting them in person or contacting them by phone or through social media.
- Do the things you enjoy, like engaging in a hobby or spending time outdoors.
- Reach out to local services that can connect you to new people, communities, or professional help.
The Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, for one, provides Community & Connection programs at 28 PCA-supported senior centers in the City of Philadelphia. They also offer health and wellness programs, volunteer support, and job training services that keep seniors active and engaged. To learn more, call the PCA Helpline at 215-765-9040 Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for major holidays.
In Montgomery County, the Senior Adult Activities Center helps seniors continue to be active, creative, healthy, and engaged in the community. Other resources include three Meals on Wheels programs, two senior centers, and an inter-generational art center — the Ambler Senior Adult Activity Center.
Similar organizations and services exist in Bucks, Chester, and Delaware counties.
Isolation can take a devastating emotional, cognitive, and physical toll over time. If you are an older adult, any steps you can take to maximize your social interactions will have a huge benefit.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing anxiety or depression, depression, please seek help. If you don’t know where to begin, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988.