When you stop to chat with an elderly neighbor as you pass her house, you’re doing much more than being friendly. You’re boosting her health. How? It turns out that social connections with neighbors, friends and family play a significant part in overall health. But seniors generally have fewer opportunities for these nurturing exchanges than most adults – with dire consequences.
The startling impact on health and well-being
It might surprise you to learn that social isolation can be as damaging as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In fact, researchers have found links between isolation and all sorts of health problems, including dementia and Alzheimer’s, and chronic conditions like heart disease. Adults who are socially isolated are two-thirds more likely to undergo further physical decline; and nearly twice as likely to die2 than those who stay linked to others.
Experts call the situation an epidemic for American seniors. With more citizens over age 65 than any other state but Florida1, Maine’s situation is especially severe. But there’s good news, too. Because each one of us has the power to make a difference. And the best way to start is with a little background information.
What’s behind the isolation epidemic?
Seniors get cut off for a number of reasons – and there’s often more than one factor at play for each situation.
- Transportation challenges. Many seniors can no longer drive, and/or face limited or no options for getting out and about.
- Poor health. A myriad of issues from hearing loss to arthritis to injury from falling to depression keep many seniors cooped up.
- Major life transitions or losses. Retiring from work, the death of a spouse, and caring for a sick or aging spouse can all remove or severely limit socialization and connections for seniors.
- Lots of rural areas. Eleven of Maine’s 16 counties are considered rural.3 The populations here have higher percentages of seniors, who also face the additional challenges of poverty and poorer health than Mainers living in more populated areas.4
“Senior loneliness is something that we are concerned about year round, but particularly during the cold, dark winter months of New England. Often, the discomfort of the cold and fear of walking or driving on ice and snow limits the mobility of the elderly population. This leads to further isolation, which is already a concern for many. This often leads to feelings of depression and anxiety and can manifest in so many ways, both physically and mentally. This time of isolation also results in limited activity or exercise and can lead to falls and pain from arthritis. Many seniors often have limited funds for food and heat and can have to deal with cold homes with little to eat. We should all take the time to think what we could do for those less fortunate than ourselves.”
– Brad Huot, Martin’s Point Practice Medical Director, Portland Health Care Center
Here’s where you come in
Social isolation is complicated. But small steps can make a big difference in the lives of seniors near you and benefit your community as a whole, too.
In your neighborhood:
Start by simply being aware of your senior neighbors and looking for ways to connect. When you meet on the street, say hello and introduce yourself.
_ Ask a neighbor to go for a walk or have coffee.
_ Offer to deliver groceries, take trash to the curb, or shovel snow.
_Host a simple neighborhood coffee or potluck.
_Keep your radar up for elderly neighbors who may become vulnerable after losing a spouse or partner.
_Check on vulnerable neighbors during bad weather, power outages, and the like. In big neighborhoods, you might join other neighbors and set up a system so no one’s left out.
In your community:
_Volunteer at your local senior center.
_Ask nearby assisted living facilities about opportunities to socialize or share a meal or a game with residents.
_Help seniors learn about cell phones, social media, Skype, and other technology that can help them stay in touch through your local library, school, or community center.
_Ask staff at your church about providing transportation, meals or companionship to seniors in your area.
Do you have a suggestion for helping seniors or do you have a volunteering opportunity you’d like to share? Share your comments below!
3/4. Maine Rural Health Profiles, 2016, p. 5, 8