For older adults, social isolation is an all too common part of life. Many elders have lost spouses and live alone or have children and other family members who do not live close and cannot easily visit on a regular basis. Others are housebound due to injury or illness or cannot drive to visit friends and family, leaving them prone to loneliness and depression and at higher risk for health problems.

We all need a little time alone now and then, enjoy some peace and quiet and relax. But what if that solitary time stretches on for days, weeks, or even months? As much as we might ache for some alone time during our hectic, frazzled lives, the fact of the matter is that social connections keep us engaged and healthy.

Social isolation is associated with devastating health issues, including cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, institutionalization, stroke, re-hospitalization, depression, and increased risk of suicide. It has even been linked to faster tumor growth in cancer patients. Socially isolated seniors are twice as likely to suffer premature death than those who have strong social ties.

So, what are alternative strategies?

  • Something is better than nothing:Families are busy; adult children of aging parents have a lot on their plates between work, children, and home life, and oftentimes, a visit to Mom’s house or even a daily call can get pushed to the back burner.  Families need to understand the dangers that a lack of social engagement can have on their loved ones.  Family members can include social interaction with their loved ones into their busy lives even when they cannot be physically present, or the visits need to be brief. A quick Skype session with the grandkids before bed or a brief between other activities can help the senior feel both loved and engaged.
  • Encourage the senior to action:Prolonged social isolation has the tendency to become habit, and after a while, some older adults may resist going out or even having others over to visit. Part of the resolution to this is to provide gentle encouragement that will help the senior push past reservations and remember how good it feels to engage with others. Family members can start slowly and spend time conversing with the senior to participate in some sort of regular outing. Encourage a trip to the local senior center or a church function, and continue to encourage other family members, neighbors and friends to call and visit as well.
  • Even when they can’t get out: The monotony of being at home alone 24/7 can be very depressing. Find ways to engage with the senior even if leaving the house is not an option. Play games, read his or her favorite books aloud, listen to music together, find a craft or recipe you can make together, set up a small indoor garden. Keeping the mind engaged in enriching activities is a key part of helping older adults feel less isolated. Social media is another great way to help seniors stay in touch with relatives. Teach clients how to use Facebook and Skype so they can stay connected at all times.

With the prevalence of social media, smart phones, and other digital devices, we often tend to feel as though we are too connected on a day-to-day basis, but that’s not true for everyone in our society. That’s why it’s vital to remember connecting seniors and loved ones who need help to stay socially active and mentally and physically healthy is a key part to a good attitude and a longer life.