Human beings thrive on social connection, yet as we age many of us spend more time alone. This increased sense of loneliness can leave us susceptible to a variety of health problems – including heart disease, depression, stroke, and memory issues. To put this issue in perspective, a recent study by health insurer Cigna found loneliness to be as dangerous to our health as smoking A WHOLE PACK of cigarettes a day!
That being said, social isolation and loneliness isn’t necessarily tied to whether we live alone as we age. 28% of older adults in the US live alone, yet many don’t report feeling lonely. Conversely, there are older adults that feel lonely while being surrounded by friends and family.
For older adults suffering from loneliness, you don’t have to let it consume you. There are many things to can do to change your life for the better, increase your happiness, and feel a stronger sense of connection with others. Here are some ideas and suggestions:
Talk to a professional
Taking care of our mental health is important for people of all ages, but especially for seniors suffering from loneliness. Talking to a trained counselor can sometimes be easier than talking to family or friends. It’s a unique opportunity to look at your problems in a different way with someone who will respect your opinions. Therapy can be especially beneficial for older adults suffering from depression as a result of loneliness, and fortunately many health insurance plans provide at least partial coverage for sessions with a trained therapist.
Volunteer in the community
Every community has a wide variety of volunteer opportunities that older adults can participate in, from working a polling station for an election to neighborhood cleanup. Helping other has been shown in numerous studies to elevate our mood, and you’ll feel a great sense of satisfaction knowing you’re making a difference in the lives of others. Plus, volunteer opportunities are a great way to meet other people in the community.
Adopt a pet
The benefits of animal ownership for older adults have been documented for decades. Pets help relieve stress, alleviate boredom, and give their owners a sense of purpose – one of the key factors determining loneliness. There’s nothing so comforting as to be able to hug a pet and be rewarded with a trusting look, a wag of the tail and even a sloppy kiss or two. Back in 1980, Erika Friedmann, PhD, and professor of Health and Nutrition Sciences for Brooklyn College in New York, studied the effect of pets on heart disease patients. Her co-researcher, Aaron Katcher, MD, reported, “The presence of a pet was the strongest social predictor of survival … not just for lonely or depressed people, but everyone – independent of marital status and access to social support from human beings.”
Focus on your health
One of the greatest problems with isolation and loneliness is that it causes people to ignore their health and well-being—both physical and psychological well-being. Lonely people often feel as though no one has a concern for them, thus leading such people to drink, smoke, and eat unhealthy food.
In addition to keeping yourself active, concentrating on your health can help you to meet other people. You could get out to a gym or park and meet other health-conscious people who share similar goals as you. You might even meet people at an organic supermarket or other healthy living store.