Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer—all of these maladies are frequent worries for the adult children responsible for the care of a senior parent. Despite all of the press coverage that illnesses like heart attacks, breast cancer, and obesity get, there is another lesser mentioned health risk that has serious consequences for seniors.
This problem increases the risk of mortality, contributes to mental decline, leads to high blood pressure, and is a major risk factor for depression. What is this awful affliction? Loneliness. Surprisingly, loneliness is a major health risk for seniors that can lead to mental, emotional, and physical problems.
If you are responsible for the care of an elderly loved one, there are a few things you need to know about loneliness.
1. Too many older people live alone.
The United States Census Bureau says that in 2010, more than 11 million people over the age of 65 lived alone—that’s about 28 percent of the seniors in the United States.
As a person ages, it is much more likely that they will live alone due to losing a spouse. And since family sizes have shrunk in the past few generations, many seniors have only one or two children to care for them, making it much more likely that seniors will have only infrequent social interaction.
2. Loneliness is directly linked to many serious health concerns.
Human beings are social creatures, and they need contact with other people to keep their minds sharp and alert. Older adults who are lonely typically have increased rates of dementia and poorer cognitive performances than those who have frequent social interaction, according to Dr. John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago. Depression is also directly linked with loneliness.
Solitary seniors are, according to a 2010 study published in Psychology and Aging, more likely to have high blood pressure. This study accounted for differences in race, gender, and other factors, and indicated that the lonely adults who participated in the study had higher systolic blood pressure at the end of the four year study period than those who had large social networks. This same study indicated that loneliness was more dangerous for seniors than being significantly overweight.
3. Loneliness increases the mortality rate of seniors.
One study published in 2012 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said that people over the age of 52 were much more likely to die if they lived alone than those who had companions. The authors of the study believe that the increase in the mortality rate is due to the fact that solitary individuals may allow medical problems to go unaddressed since there is no one there to prompt them to seek medical attention.
4. Seniors who are lonely are more likely to need long-term care.
When seniors lack a vibrant care support network, they are much more likely to need long-term care like nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Lonely seniors just seem to have a hard time taking care of themselves and do not have enough support to keep their homes safe, healthy places to live. Thankfully, the availability of eldercare places like assisted living communities means that seniors who were previously lonely can reap the benefits of frequent social interaction with staff and fellow residents alike.
5. Lonely people may display unhealthy habits.
Seniors who are lonely are much more likely to have unhealthy self-care habits according to the 2011 English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. Lonely seniors often have poor dietary habits, poor exercise habits, and smoke. Senior communities can reduce these behaviors because social support exists to ensure that seniors are eating properly, exercising, and taking care of their basic health needs.
With so many caregivers dealing with their own busy work schedules and the day-to-day stressors of life, it can be easy to forget that Mom needs plenty of social interaction. Even if her health is good now, if she is shut in by herself too long, she may end up suffering from preventable problems. Assisted living, church senior groups, volunteer opportunities, group exercise programs, and programs like Meals on Wheels can help prevent loneliness in senior adults. When you are responsible for the care of an elderly parent, make sure that you aren’t forgetting emotional and social needs that can prevent physical and mental ailments.