Today more than ever before, feeling alone is a common part of growing old. Social circles tend to shrink as we age: Friends and loved ones pass away, and children move on, building their own lives that no longer revolve around their parents. These phenomena can leave a vacuum, and as close relationships fade and that sense of being useful and needed decreases, loneliness sets in.
And it's not just a matter of being physically or socially isolated. Although that certainly contributes to the issue, it's also quite possible to feel lonely while in a crowd. A study on loneliness found that nearly half (43 percent) of elderly respondents felt lonely -- although only 18 percent actually lived alone.
What is loneliness really, and how can you help your loved one if they're feeling this way?
At its core, loneliness is really about a lack of connection. Whether it's someone in a marriage that lacks communication, an individual who doesn't feel at home in their community, or an elderly parent living with their adult child but lacking meaningful interaction, we feel lonely when we become aware of the gap between the social relationships that we want or remember and those that we currently have.
The consequences of feeling isolated and alone can be more serious than you might expect. A study published in Critical Care Nurse identifies loneliness in the elderly with an increased rate of functional decline and a greater risk of mortality.
To make matters worse, loneliness can be a self-perpetuating cycle. John Cacioppo, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Chicago, told the National Science Foundation that loneliness can lead to defensive behavior or irritability, which can make a person unpleasant to be around. These behaviors may push people away, making the problem worse.
And while loneliness and depression are separate issues, they often occur together -- the Critical Care Nurse study notes that individuals who are lonely often exhibit symptoms of depression. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, these symptoms can include:
- Trouble making decisions.
- Inability to concentrate.
- Sleep problems.
- Weight loss or gain.
How You Can Help
If you know or suspect your aging loved one is feeling lonely, or if you notice them exhibiting signs of depression, here are some proactive steps you can take to help:
- If you can, accompany your loved one to the doctor and discuss these issues. If they're exhibiting symptoms of depression, make sure their physician is aware and can determine if they might need counseling.
- Help them identify activities that can help reinforce a sense of belonging. These might include membership in a community group or taking an interesting class with peers.
- Talk to your older loved one about how you can include them, including ways they can still feel helpful and useful among your immediate family and friends. This could be something as simple as helping their young grandchild practice reading or volunteering to help other seniors in need.
- Help your loved one identify a passion project. Is there something they've always wanted to do? Are there social causes they're passionate about? Do some research to find ways they can get involved.
- Perhaps most importantly, be interested! Ask questions about their life, and really listen to their stories. Being listened to can help your loved one find that once-lost sense of connectedness.
It's difficult to watch a parent or loved one struggle as they age, and harder still when you have multiple stressors in your own life and little time to contribute. But sometimes, even just a little acknowledgment can help someone who's feeling alone remember that they're loved and supported.