August 4, 2023
An important new study linking social isolation with dementia in older adults gives us yet one more reason to consider the incalculable benefits of social activity and human connections as we age.
The Link Between Social Isolation and Dementia
Following over 5,000 adults in the U.S. aged 65+ across a 9-year period, the longitudinal study out of Johns Hopkins University found that seniors who are socially isolated are 27% more likely to develop dementia than those who are not. (It is noteworthy that this study was conducted between 2011-2020, ending on the brink of the pandemic. It is likely that an even greater percentage of seniors experienced isolation during COVID.)
Defining social isolation as “an objective state of having few social relationships or infrequent social contact with others,” the study reports that 25% of older Americans are in such a state. Looking at it another way, one in every four seniors is lacking vital community with others.
In addition to the link to dementia, social isolation presents other dangers.
According to a 2019 report from the National Institute on Aging, disconnection from others can shorten one’s lifespan by as many as 15 years. Other concerning statistics reveal that older adults living alone have a 29% increased risk of premature death.
High blood pressure, heart attack/disease, weakened immunity, obesity, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse are all life-threatening physical, mental and addictive conditions linked to social isolation.
Well before the pandemic, in 2010, data from a variety of independent studies found that “the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality.” The National Institute on Aging put it this way: prolonged isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The Difference Between Isolation and Loneliness
It is important to make the distinction between social isolation and loneliness. Isolation is a lack of interaction with other people, while loneliness is a subjective feeling of sadness and being “alone in a crowded room.”
Said Harriett Hall, M.D., “Social isolation is often conflated with loneliness. They are not the same thing. Isolation is a fact; loneliness is a feeling.”
While alone time has its advantages (setting goals, focusing on personal growth, reflecting and renewing, establishing peace and calm), this is most often the case when being alone is a choice. For many seniors, isolation is a sentence from which they’re hard-pressed to escape. They’ve lost friends and loved ones, mobility is reduced, driving has decreased or ceased.
But there is good news.
Turning Things Around
Fortunately, there are ways to ameliorate the “objective state” of social separation facing many of our aging loved ones. As recently outlined on Good Morning America by Dr. Jennifer Lee Garfein Ashton, seniors suffering from isolation can benefit from:
- Social support, caregiving and access to healthcare
- Contact with family and friends
- Engagement in community activities
While this advice is sage, simple and somewhat self-evident, heeding it may be easier said than done.
Let’s look at how a barren social landscape can become a flourishing field of opportunity with the right people and sources of support.
Who Can Help?
- Adult Children
Many adult children are overwhelmed by the demands of caring for their aging parents, often at the same time they’re caring for their children. Yet, even in the absence of a caregiving role, adult children can be one of Mom and Dad’s greatest resources.
First and foremost, they can give aging loved ones the priceless gift of their time and presence. Even if in-person visits are not feasible because of geographic distance, modern technology has shown us how to stay connected across the miles, face-to-face, if not actually in person (thanks, COVID!). Sometimes a regular video call is all it takes to help isolated loved ones feel the lasting effects of companionship.
Adult children who live nearby can visit in person or take their parents on outings, errands, activities, volunteer commitments, etc. Any grandchildren or youngsters should be encouraged to join, as intergenerational bonds are invaluable to both young and old. Include friends or associates of your parents too, if possible, or offer to drive your parents to visit them.
Regardless of how much time you can devote to your senior, it is important to set up a regular schedule – and stick to it! – so that they can look forward to and count on regular contact with you and others dear to them.
Adult children can also be hugely influential in connecting their parents to the following individuals and resources:
- Trusted Professionals
Your parents’ healthcare providers, spiritual leaders, legal advisors, etc. often have unique insights into their needs, feelings, challenges, and concerns. Encourage your loved one to seek advice or resources from these professionals that might be of special interest or support to them. Ask them to share with you what they’ve learned (stressing that your interest is to help them, not control them). Better yet, if it’s okay with your parents and the professional(s), join them in these meetings as fellow team members operating on their behalf. Four ears are better than two, especially when there is a lot of information to absorb.
- Community Organizations
Most cities and towns have myriad activities, clubs, volunteer opportunities, houses of worship, park districts, community centers, senior centers, Meetup groups, etc. to facilitate healthy, ongoing interactions with other like-minded people. For less mobile seniors, many communities offer transportation services. Nearby adult children or grandchildren who drive can bring an older loved one out of isolation by taking them to activities and events, not to mention offering their company along the way.
If your senior isn’t sure what they’d like to explore, sit down with them and research the options. Simply perusing the possibilities can be uplifting and inspiring! And even if organized activity is not their thing, an easy stroll around the neighborhood with a walking buddy or a visit to the park will bring them into contact with friendly two- and even four-legged others.
“Anything that engages mind, mood and spirit is the right thing to do,” said Dr. Ashton. “And it’s never too late to intervene on behalf of seniors in isolation.”
Here are some local West Chester, PA, area resources to check out. You can investigate similar organizations in your area:
- Volunteer opportunities (various areas and causes)
- Elder Helpers (volunteers helping the elderly – free service)
- Senior Living Communities
Perhaps more than any other conduit to social engagement, today’s best senior living communities offer residents the immeasurable benefits of human connections every single day.
Providing continuing, compassionate care with all the comforts of home (and none of the chores), Barclay Friends lives up to its name by taking residents on a journey of discovery through new activities and interests with great companions always at their side.
The end of social isolation begins at Barclay Friends.