Loneliness and Social Isolation: Tips to Follow for Staying Connected

Everyone requires social connections to survive and thrive. But as people get old, they usually find themselves spending more time alone. Being alone may make older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and isolation, impacting their mental health and wellbeing. Research has revealed that loneliness and social isolation can increase health risks such as depression, heart disease, and cognitive decline. You may be more likely to feel lonely and socially isolated if you are in poor health. This, in turn, can impact your physical and mental health. Adults who lack social connections and experience loneliness are more likely to have shorter lifespans, longer hospital stays, and higher readmission rates than those with strong social support networks.

How is loneliness different from social isolation?

Due to the growing number of older adults, many face the challenges of social isolation and loneliness. The COVID-19 pandemic worsened these issues, as concerns for health and the need for physical distancing. Social isolation and loneliness are different but related. Loneliness is the distressing feeling of being alone and separated. Social isolation refers to lacking social connections and having limited people to interact with regularly. You can live alone without feeling lonely or socially isolated, and you can feel lonely while surrounded by others. Due to changes in health and social connections that often come with aging, such as hearing, vision, and memory loss, disability, and the loss of loved ones, older adults are more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness.
How does feeling lonely or isolated impact older adults’ mental health?
Being socially isolated or feeling lonely can have a major impact on the health of older adults. Those who are isolated or lonely are at increased risk of being admitted to emergency rooms or nursing homes. Furthermore, they have higher risks for:
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression
  • Cognitive decline
  • Death
  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune function
  • Anxiety
People who are lonely or isolated may have a lack of physical activity, excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, and poor sleep patterns, which can further increase the risk of severe health conditions. Emotional pain can trigger similar stress responses in the body as physical pain. When this lasts for a long time, it can result in chronic inflammation and reduced immunity. This increases your risk of chronic disease and can leave a person more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Social isolation and loneliness also affect mental health. They have been linked to poorer cognitive function and a higher risk for dementia. Moreover, a lack of social activity and being alone may decrease the ability to perform daily tasks such as driving, paying bills, and cooking.
What are the risks of loneliness and social isolation?
People who experience isolation due to the illness of a loved one, separation from family, loss of mobility, worsening vision or hearing, or disability, are particularly more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation. You may also have an increased risk if you:
  • Live alone
  • Are a caregiver
  • Face financial problems
  • Cannot leave your home
  • Have limited social support
  • Face language barriers in your community
  • Live in a rural, unsafe, or hard-to-reach area
  • Have psychological or cognitive difficulties or depression
  • Experience age, racial, ethnic, or gender identity discrimination
  • Have gone through a significant loss or change, such as the death of a spouse
People with hearing loss may struggle with conversations with friends and family. It leads to decreased social interaction, social isolation, and increased loneliness.

How can you discuss with your physician about loneliness and social isolation?

If you're struggling with loneliness or social isolation, you must talk to your physician or healthcare provider. This involves sharing information about your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. By describing your symptoms, your healthcare provider can better identify the issue and provide appropriate recommendations. Make sure to bring up specific concerns, such as telling your healthcare provider about your significant life changes or stressors, like a recent breakup or the passing of a loved one. This will help your doctor gain a deeper understanding of your situation and to make helpful suggestions. Be open about your health habits and current life circumstances. This will allow your healthcare provider to better understand your medical conditions and emotional health and recommend the most effective treatment options.

How to protect yourself or a loved one from loneliness and social isolation?

Here are a few things you can do to protect yourself or a loved one from the negative impacts of loneliness and social isolation. First of all, self-care is essential. Make a habit of eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting adequate sleep of 7 to 9 hours, and engaging in activities that help reduce stress and maintain good mental health. It’s equally important to stay active and build connections with others. People who participate in productive social activities enjoy themselves with others and feel a sense of purpose. For instance, volunteering to assist others reduces feelings of loneliness and provides a sense of purpose, which positively impacts mental health. Research indicates that participating in such activities can boost your mood, overall well-being, and cognitive abilities.

Different ways to avoid loneliness and social isolation

Here are some ways to help you stay connected:
  • Find an enjoyable activity, revive an old hobby, or join a class to learn something new and exciting. This may provide enjoyment and the opportunity to connect people with similar interests.
  • Set a daily time to communicate with family, friends, and neighbours through personal visits, email, social media, voice calls, or texting. Discuss your feelings with trusted people and suggest activities to strengthen relationships. Writing letters or sending cards is another great way to sustain friendships.
  • If you’re not tech-savvy, attend an online or in-person class at your local library or community center to learn how to use email or social media.
  • Adopting a pet can provide comfort and lower stress and blood pressure if you can care for it.
  • Stay physically active by joining a walking club or working with friends. Adults should aim for 2.5 hours of activity per week.
  • Introduce yourself to your neighbors.
  • Find resources and programs available at your area's social service, community centers, senior centers, and public libraries.

Final Words

Loneliness and social isolation can significantly negatively impact one's mental and physical health. It is essential to take steps to stay connected with others and maintain strong relationships. This can be done by joining clubs, volunteering, reaching out to friends and family, or using technology to stay connected with loved ones. Remember, no one has to face these challenges alone and reaching out for help is a strength, not a weakness. By staying connected, you can improve your overall well-being and find joy in the company of others.