A recent University of Chicago study revealed that emotional isolation is linked to elevated blood pressure in seniors.
Lonely seniors can register blood pressure readings up to 30 points higher than their socially connected peers, regardless of race, sex or other health factors, researchers found. Loneliness is also closely linked to depression. More than two million of the nation's 64 million seniors suffering from this condition.
"Approximately 8.8 million seniors were living alone in America 17 years ago, according to the 1990 U.S. Census," says Scott Perry, president of Bankers Life and Casualty Company, a national insurance company specializing in the senior market. "The 2000 Census showed that number had climbed to 9.7 million. Experts agree it's reasonable to expect the number of seniors living alone will continue to grow. Maintaining strong social networks can help seniors stay healthier longer, and enhance the overall quality of their lives as well."
Older Americans are more prone to experience the kind of life changes that place them at greater risk for loneliness, including the death of their spouse, relatives and friends; retirement; illness; decreased physical mobility; loss of the ability to drive; and reductions in their social networks.
Fortunately, there are many ways in which seniors, even those with significantly curtailed mobility, can prevent and combat loneliness. Proven loneliness-fighting strategies include volunteering. Volunteers live longer, have higher functional ability, lower rates of depression and less incidence of heart disease, according to a study by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Research shows that seniors age 65 and older who volunteer experienced significantly lower rates of depression than their non-volunteering peers.
"The life changes that come with age can easily make us feel isolated and less useful than we felt when we were working and raising our families," Perry notes. "For those who are physically able, volunteering is a great way to connect with new people and renew your sense of purpose in life."
Joining social and support groups is another way seniors can avoid falling into the loneliness trap. Interaction with those who share interests or face similar challenges not only combats loneliness, but can be a way to build new friendships. If your community has a senior center (and most can provide transportation assistance), take advantage of its programs and facilities. Call your local recreation or senior services department to learn what's available in your area.
Another strategy is to plug in to the Internet. The number of seniors using the Internet more than doubled between 2000 and 2004. Seniors who face mobility challenges can find others with similar interests through a variety of resources and Web sites directed at seniors on the Internet.
Technology providers continue to develop products to make it easier for seniors to use the Internet, such as large-button keyboards and voice recognition software. Asking for help to get online can also be a great way to connect with tech-savvy grandchildren.
Want to fight loneliness? Get back into the classroom. Learning a new skill requires you to interact with a teacher and fellow students. Choose to learn a skill such as cooking or e-mailing, and the skill itself can help enhance your ability to interact socially with others. Local community colleges and city centers offer many courses appropriate for seniors.
Studies have found that friendships are often more important than family connections in fighting loneliness among seniors. Make a conscious effort to stay connected with friends by visiting with them in person or keeping in touch by phone, letter or e-mail.
For more information on senior topics, visit www.bankerslife.com and click "Senior Resources."