According to University of California: San Francisco (2016), Forty-three percent of older adults feel lonely, although only 18% actually live alone.
Loneliness is a mixture of emptiness, sadness, and isolation. More specifically, it creeps into your life and causes health issues, psychological distress, and emotional pain. Anyone, of any age, ethnicity, religion, educational status, economic level, gender, or sexual orientation can experience loneliness. In other words, it doesn’t discriminate on any level. However, loneliness tends to hit the elderly the hardest. And, in some cases, is predictive of age-related health problems, medication side-effects, depression, and/or the end of life. It is important to understand that for many seniors (elderly), living alone and being lonely is a way of life.
Once their children have grown up and moved away, and their spouses have passed, the still living seniors face the daunting, and often lonely task of maintaining the very empty household. This is especially daunting when the elderly individual is ill and/or disabled, and when he or she has lost all of his or her friends and relatives. It is also difficult, when the still living senior has never controlled finances or had to do things on his or her own. It is important to understand how loneliness and being alone affects the elderly, because, unfortunately, many times this segment of the population is overlooked, ignored, dismissed, and neglected. By understanding these factors, you can make a positive difference in the life of an elderly individual.
Listed below is an overview of how loneliness and being alone affects the elderly:
One of the effects of being elderly and alone is financial difficulties. Most seniors depend on government assistance (i.e. social security, disability, Medicare, food stamps, etc.), 401K, and employee retirement accounts to meet their financial needs. However, unfortunately, because these individuals no longer work, they have the highest risk of becoming impoverished (Kaplan, & Berkman, 2016). Elderly individuals, over the age of 80, who have outlived their spouses, friends, and children, are forced to maintain the household alone, sometimes for the first time, which places them in the high risk category for financial difficulties.
It is important to understand that most of these individuals are not only alone, but also lonely. They feel isolated, sad, and lost. They do not feel like there is anyone to talk to or help them with their finances. However, in many cases, they are wrong. In fact, you can help seniors, who live alone, avoid financial problems simply by helping them develop and maintain budgets, and making sure others do not take advantage of them financially.
Another consequence of being alone, lonely, and elderly is accidents. While some seniors are still quite agile, others are disabled and/or ill and cannot move around as well, which is one of the reasons why elderly individuals (with limited mobility) living alone are at-risk of falling in their homes with no way of alerting others that they need assistance. Loneliness creeps in when seniors have accidents, and they have no one to call or depend on to help them. It’s a very distressing feeling to feel isolated from others, in general, and during emergencies.
In fact, this feeling of isolation often leads to anger, sadness, despair, and loneliness. Thankfully, however, there are plenty of in-home devices available (for the disabled and elderly) to alert medical personnel and the police of emergencies. Moreover, those, who worry about the safety and livelihood of seniors, can purchase in-home medical alert systems (i.e. alert watches, necklaces, and bracelets) for them, in case they fall and can’t get back up.
A Loss of Independence
As elderly individuals age, many lose their abilities to do things for themselves (i.e. complete tasks, run errands, cook, clean, drive, make decisions, etc.). In fact, visual impairments (i.e. loss of sight, blindness, etc.) and mental clarity issues can make even simple tasks like grocery shopping alone nearly impossible. This loss of independence can trigger bouts of loneliness and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. It can also cause a senior to feel isolated and completely or almost completely dependent on the aid of others.
Another effect of a loss of independence is a “disconnect” from others. In other words, many elderly individuals feel that since they cannot move or “get about” like they used to, others don’t want to “be bothered” by them, which only worsens their loneliness. As a result, these same individuals drift away from the “connections” they used to have, triggering even more loneliness and despair. A good way to counter this loss of independence in the elderly population is to introduce them to tasks that they can still perform and achieve.
In other words, if the senior is unable to move much, introduce simple “stretching exercises” that he or she can do. Or, if the senior, who used to love to cook, can no longer cook, due to memory problems, set time aside each week to “cook” with him or her. More specifically, find simple meals to prepare and allow the senior to “help” you with the food preparation. Then, sit down and enjoy a meal or dessert with your friend or loved one. Simple things like that can really make a big difference in the life of a lonely elderly individual, who lives alone.
Some elderly individuals also experience loneliness, when they live alone, because of social isolation. In fact, according to Kaplan & Berkman (2016), elderly individuals, who live alone, often report feeling isolated and lonely. Moreover, depending on the individual’s support system and resources, he or she may go for long periods of time without seeing or hearing from anyone. In a sense these individuals feel “cut-off” from the rest of the world, leading to feelings of being lost, secluded, and desolate.
However, social isolation in the elderly population can be prevented or reduced, simply by scheduling regular visits with them. Truth-be-told, these individuals tend to welcome visitors. It gets lonely in their worlds, so talking to someone makes them feel good, especially when they can share sage advice or tell stories from many years ago. The key is to make sure that this population does not feel abandoned and “shut off from the rest of the world.” Another thing you can do is encourage seniors to participate in activities and programs (i.e. senior programs) that are “doable” and fun, regardless of age or ability.
As people age, many experience memory problems, especially when they become seniors. In fact, a large number of them experience memory problems that affect their safety, when performing basic household tasks like: cooking, cleaning, driving etc. Moreover, it is not uncommon for seniors over the age of 70 to forget to turn the stove off after cooking, turn off heaters after use, or unplug irons, once they finish ironing. It is important to understand that house fires (in the elderly population) are one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
Smokers, who forget to put out their pipes, cigarettes, joints, and/or cigars also pose danger, if one of these items sparks a fire. Less “dangerous,” but still significant, is seniors, who forget to pay their bills, leading to foreclosures, electricity being shut-off, a neglect of proper hygiene, prescription overdoses, because they don’t remember when they last took their medicines, and health problems stemming from “forgetting to take their meds,” etc., can also create havoc in the lives of lonely seniors, living alone. Because of the loneliness, these individuals are often vulnerable to those, who do not have their best interests at heart.
These scrupulous people take advantage of elderly individuals with memory problems by getting them to turn over their financial information, emotionally and/or physically harming them, or manipulating them into doing things they don’t want to do. Most of the time, these seniors don’t even remember what they did. Therefore, the best thing you can do for seniors, with memory issues, is to check on them frequently. Go with them doctor’s appointments, stop by unannounced, so you can see who they are talking to, keep an eye on their financial accounts, and talk to them about what they remember about events, people, etc. You can also introduce memory games to sharpen their memories.
Lastly, an extremely common effect of being alone and lonely is depression. This mental illness affects every single part of a senior’s life, from energy, sleep, and appetite to self-esteem, happiness, hobbies, relationships, and interests in activities. Unfortunately, however, all too many times, depression symptoms in the elderly go unnoticed, preventing them from getting the care they so desperately need. And, although sadness and depression may appear to go together, most depressed seniors claim that they are not sad.
Instead they tend to complain about being excessively tired, lacking energy, feeling “draggy,” feeling unmotivated, and/or having lots of aches and pains – that never seem to go away. In fact, the main symptoms commonly associated with late adult-onset (elderly) clinical depression are: unrelenting headaches, migraines, and/or arthritis pain.
It’s also important to understand that elderly depression can occur as a result of chronic medical conditions like: strokes, heart disease, cancer, lupus, Parkinson disease, thyroid disorders, multiple sclerosis, and/or Dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. The depression is a psychological reaction to the pain, frustration, anger, and limitations they feel as a result of the condition. This is especially true, if the chronic condition is debilitating, painful, and/or life-threatening. Depression can also occur as a result of a medication side-effect.
In fact, elderly individuals, who take a multitude of prescription medications, have the highest risks for depression. And, while mood-related prescription medication side-effects (i.e. depression, anxiety, etc.) can affect anyone, of any age, seniors are more vulnerable to these side-effects, primarily because as they age, their bodies become less effective at processing and metabolizing the chemicals that make up prescription medications.
You can aid seniors, who may be experiencing depression, by learning more about the condition (i.e. symptom, causes, diagnostic tests, and treatments), and by scheduling a consultation with a psychologist or psychiatrist, if you feel that the senior may be exhibiting depressive symptoms. The key to preventing a senior from being consumed with depression is paying attention and getting him or her, the care he or she needs.
Help Guide. (2016). Depression in older adults. Retrieved from http://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/depression-in-older-adults-and-the-elderly.htm
Kaplan, D. B., & Berkman, B. J. (2016). The elderly living alone. Merck Manual. Retrieved from http://www.merckmanuals.com/professional/geriatrics/social-issues-in-the-elderly/the-elderly-living-alone
Kim, L. (2012). Loneliness linked to serious health problems and death among elderly. University of Pennsylvania: Support Services Essential for Elderly Living Alone. Retrieved from