Help is available for seniors battling isolation
Between the holidays and the weather, this time of year can be especially challenging for seniors who spend a significant amount of time alone.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28% of people ages 65 and older live alone. While living alone does not inevitably lead to social isolation, it can certainly be a contributing factor. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that loneliness in older adults also resulted in a lowered immune response and increased inflammation. All of these physical and mental health effects create burdens on public health resources and can reduce an individual’s quality of life.
In a University of California-San Francisco study, when more than 1,600 American adults over the age of 60 were asked how often they felt lonely or excluded, 43% said “often” or “some of the time.” Nearly 25% of adults who reported feeling lonely also reported that they had trouble carrying out activities of daily living.
Beyond the effects on daily life, a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults ages 52 and older.
Finding ways to combat isolation is pivotal to the health and well-
being of older adults. The good news is that there are many ways to do this at a personal level, as well as at the community level.
A sense of purpose
One way to avoid feelings of isolation is to find a sense of purpose. Having hobbies and a daily routine, volunteering or joining a church choir or other senior groups can create a connection to something larger than yourself, providing the drive to live beyond the basic tasks of everyday living.
Finding a purpose can happen at any stage of life. The trick is acknowledging the fact that it won’t come to you if you sit and wait for it. You may get a simple request from a friend that seems like nothing more than a chance to get out of the house for the afternoon. That small request may result in a new connection.
Whether you are looking for a new passion or just spending time with others, it’s important to get out there. There are many opportunities in the community to spend time with peers who, like you, might be looking to learn new things, stay healthy or just find a friend.
There are many good resources in the community for this: the Lifelong Recreation series offered by the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, the Retirement Boot Camp series at the Lawrence Public Library, courses at the University of Kansas’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, genealogy classes at the Watkins Museum of History, and even the new Game Room at the Senior Resource Center.
Who knows? You may find a new hobby or make a connection with new people who enjoy the things you do.
Removing barriers at home
For those who live alone and may not have family or friends to engage with, the idea of reaching out to others for anything can seem overwhelming. Many feel that no one could understand their circumstances — until they realize that there may be other people nearby who feel just the same.
It may start with a simple hello each day, but consider meeting neighbors for coffee or asking the young family down the street to help with your mail a couple of days a week.
There are also many programs in the community, including Community Village Lawrence and church-based groups such as the Friendly Visitors from Catholic Charities, which can provide companionship. They can coordinate home-visitation services and telephone reassurance groups, as well as help with small home maintenance projects.
One important component of staying socially engaged and avoiding isolation is access to transportation. Isolation can set in very quickly for those who no longer drive.
There are numerous methods of affordable transportation in the area. Lawrence offers public transportation, and the Senior Wheels program is also available from the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County. The Senior Wheels program recently expanded to provide a dedicated van for seniors in the Eudora community, and it has also added a monthly shuttle from Lecompton to Lawrence to assist seniors who have limited options for shopping.
It can be hard to remain engaged and social during this time of year. With uncertainty about the weather and trying to fit in time with friends and families with busy lives, anyone can find themselves feeling isolated. The good news is that our community is rich with opportunities for older adults to stay engaged.
— Michelle Meier is the director of community engagement for the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County, a community partner of LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Journal-World’s Health section.