They call it the “Golden Years.” This time in life is typically defined as the time between retirement and the beginning of aged-imposed physical, cognitive, and emotional limitations. For some it truly can be a “golden” time. For others, it can be a time of increasing isolation, loneliness, and despair. While there are many things in life that you cannot control, you are not entirely powerless over whether or not you age well. Fortunately, you can take steps to make this a fulfilling time in your life.
One of the major factors that impacts how you age is the issue of isolation versus connection. Research is clear about the many negative health consequences to isolation and loneliness. Many of these can be avoided with the right kinds of effort, though COVID has certainly complicated matters the past two years. Humans are social beings made for attachment, and you are healthiest when you have significant connections with others in your lives. Certain aspects of aging make staying connected more difficult and naturally propel you toward isolation. Here is a partial list:
Retirement: In retirement, you lose a daily routine and activity — a group of people that you have seen regularly for years, possibly even some of your close friends. Once retired, you will see fewer people. Retirement requires you to reinvent your life and your support system on some level.
Changing family structures: As you age, children and other family members may move away. Families are more spread apart today than ever before. If married, you may eventually become widowed. A regular and healthy connection with family members has positive effects on health and aging.
Loss of friends and social support: As you age, you will lose friends and family members to death and to declining health. The social relationships you have may begin to decline in quality. It is normal to find yourself more alone with the need to make new connections. The making of new connections can be difficult and takes intentional effort.
Health and financial difficulties: As your health declines or you experience financial changes that make it more difficult to stay connected socially, isolation can occur. An additional challenge for some can be a lack of transportation, as this is a time when you might either stop driving altogether or at least decrease and limit the places you will drive.
Fear of being a burden: In your older years, you are going to need more help in a variety of areas. Some people have a difficult time asking for help. Feeling less self-sufficient can result in feeling inadequate and shame. A decrease in abilities is a loss that will need to be grieved. Accepting the inevitability of needing more assistance will help you not to feel like a burden and allow you to stay more connected.
Isolation and loneliness are common as you age. While isolation and loneliness are closely related, they are not the same. Isolation refers to having fewer social connections. Not everyone with limited social connections feels lonely. Loneliness has been defined as a “discrepancy between what you have and what you want in your relationships.” It is possible to have fewer connections with people in your life, but because these connections are very deep and meaningful, you do not feel lonely. On the other hand, you can have lots of people in your life and still feel lonely because those connections are not deep and meaningful.
Researchers share that millions of people are socially isolated, which is defined as “separated from society with few personal relationships and little communication with the outside world.” This tends to occur more commonly in the over-60 age group. In the UK, more than half a million people in that age group spend every day alone. Recent studies in the United States reveal that loneliness affects between 19 to 43 percent of those ages 60 and older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly a third (13.8 million) of seniors live alone. Living alone makes it much more difficult to stay socially connected.
COVID has made this situation much worse. The University of Michigan conducted a poll in June 2020 and found that 56 percent of older adults felt isolated. In a survey of adult children who care for parents or elderly relatives, 62 percent reported that their family member has suffered physically and/or mentally from isolation during the COVID pandemic. This has led some to call this the “Double Pandemic.”
The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness
Social isolation and loneliness have been demonstrated to have detrimental health effects. The effects are on both mental and physical health. In fact, a study done by Brigham Young University indicated that loneliness can be as deadly as smoking or obesity. Isolation in seniors can complicate already existing health conditions.
Loneliness is a significant cause of stress. It is well established that high levels of stress cause mental illness and physical illnesses and can lead to the worsening of already existing illnesses. Loneliness is a significant social stressor. It can activate the body’s stress response system that, when prolonged, leads to increased inflammation and reduced immunity. This makes you vulnerable to other physical illnesses. Stress also impacts one’s ability to sleep, and a lack of sleep is a contributor to many mental and physical illnesses.
Additionally, many of the actions people choose to cope with stress (alcohol and drugs, unhealthy eating, withdrawal from others, inactivity, and smoking) also have detrimental health effects. Loneliness is associated with a higher risk for premature death. Premature death rates for those reporting intense loneliness are similar to those of excessive alcohol use, smoking, and obesity. Loneliness has also been shown to lead to an increased risk for heart disease and stroke, as well as increased physician and emergency room visits.
Loneliness is a leading cause of depression and anxiety. This link is well established for all age groups. It is significantly worse for seniors who have a much harder time making the social connections necessary to combat loneliness. Lonely seniors tend to worry more and about a wider variety of issues. They also have a more negative/pessimistic view of the future. It is also well established that seniors who are socially connected have significantly lower rates of mental illness overall.
Loneliness significantly increases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. The risk for Alzheimer’s has been shown to be nearly double in lonely adults, and when it is present, the mental decline is faster. A likely causal factor is that those who are isolated had less cognitive stimulation. Studies also show that generally, seniors who feel lonely and are isolated perform worse on tests of thinking abilities and are slower to process information.
On a neurochemical level, loneliness has been linked with two specific chemical changes in the brain that have been linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease — the buildup of beta-amyloid and tau proteins.
How to Stay Connected
Social isolation and loneliness are two related and yet different concepts. Social connection has to do with the amount of interaction that you have with others. Loneliness is more about the quality of those social connections. Both are necessary. You need a sufficient number of connections, and you need for at least some of those relationships to be deep and meaningful. Here are some helpful ideas for remaining connected and not feeling lonely:
• Make it a priority to be with people. Those who live alone are more likely to have fewer social connections. If you live alone, you will have to be proactive to structure your daily life with activities that get you out and interacting with others. Some choose senior living communities to help with this or involvement in organizations like churches, clubs, and community organizations. It is worth the effort it takes to maintain social activities. Be accountable to someone regarding your social activity.
• Develop and maintain meaningful relationships. These are the key to avoiding loneliness. Living with others is a blessing. Strive to keep those relationships healthy and satisfying. It is never too late to improve or resolve issues in any relationship that you have. If you have few friends remaining from early years, make the effort to develop new friendships. The effort will pay off.
• Consider a pet. Having a strong relationship with a pet can augment your social relationships. It will not replace relationships with others, yet it can be very meaningful. The responsibility of caring for a pet can keep you active. Furthermore, a pet may be a pathway to additional social connection.
• Engage in meaningful activity. You have something to contribute. Find activities where you and those around you are benefiting. Use your interests and talents to help others. Find activities that you enjoy, such as hobbies, part-time work and volunteer service, or take advantage of the many recreational opportunities available. Find a way to be more creative. Creative outlets will engage your mind and are an opportunity to engage others. Explore your world. For some, this may be limited to exploring things around you. If you are able, you will benefit by exploring the much larger world out there.
• Pursue and maintain physical, mental, and spiritual health. Areas for improvement and growth include exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep. Engage in activities that challenge your mental abilities like reading, arts, music, and projects of all sorts. Relate to people who have similar interests and with whom you can share these activities. Give priority to your spiritual side. Maybe you have more time now to contemplate and engage in spiritual practices than when you were younger. It has been said that the best defense is a good offense. Being proactive in your health will pay off.
• Use technology to stay connected to others. Many were doing this before COVID. It is even more important and beneficial now. Video calling (Zoom, Skype, Facetime, and others) are great ways to stay connected with friends and loved ones. It can be a reasonable substitute when face-to-face interaction is not possible. Social media is another tool for connections with others. Use social media wisely as many aspects there could feed negativity. Wisdom and some accountability with others is helpful in regards to social media.
You are not alone. Many people like you are in need of and are capable of meaningful relationships. They too are looking for social connection. Be grateful for those connections in your life. Make it a priority to maintain them. Have courage and be willing to take some risks and seek to develop new relationships. People really do make the world go round. Relationships help you stay healthy, and they make life worth living.
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies.