More older adults are living longer and, in most cases, better than ever before. One result of this is that more older adults live alone. In fact more than a quarter of older people now live alone. Since women live longer than men this means older women are twice as likely to live alone than men. That means about two out of every three older adults who live alone are women. When women are over 75 years of age even more of them live alone.
Most older adults prefer to stay in their homes as they age. The older they get the harder this becomes. The challenges are different for men and women who live alone but both face problems.
Couples sometimes manage a delicate balance as they age. One spouse helps the other as needed. This could be as simple as making beds together or sharing housecleaning tasks. It can also become more complex over time as one spouse assumes all the paying of bills and arranging for household services. These tasks may have been handled mostly by one spouse before but in times of need this could become the other spouse’s responsibility. When the ability to drive safely becomes an issue one spouse drives all or most of the time.
The person may have always lived alone, but many are alone in old age because a spouse died or the couple is divorced. But what happens when an older person lives alone?
The simple aspects of home management can become a challenge. Who will change the batteries in the smoke detectors near the ceiling? How do you purchase food and household items in quantities that make sense for one person? (You have probable noticed that many stores bundle everything from toilet paper to chicken pieces in large family sized packages.) For that matter how do you cook meals for one that are interesting enough to eat?
The most serious problems develop not from living alone but when living alone becomes isolation. Real problems can develop from isolation. It is well documented that people with good social connections live longer and healthier. On the other hand there is plenty of research that shows that living with fewer social connections can lead to health problems and earlier death.
Social isolation can also leave an older person more vulnerable to scams. An older person may respond to an email scam with a request for help instead of questioning the reality of the request. Phone calls asking for money for various causes can be tempting. This kind of phony appeal for help might result in dire consequences because an older person, lonely and yearning for someone to talk to, falls victim to the persuasive scam artist.
We all have a built-in need to have connections with other people. We want to feel that there are people who know us. We want people who will spend time with us, people we can confide in about the things happening in our lives.
People of all ages can feel loneliness, however this becomes particularly difficult for older people who live alone. Family and friends have been aging right along with the person and over time many of these connections become weaker, or are lost through death or moving away. Even when still living nearby older friends and family may find it harder to visit.
People who are lonely tend to develop negative attitudes about themselves. This can cause a terrible cycle in which negative thoughts lead to even more negative thoughts about oneself. Often this leads to less activity and poor eating habits. Both the negative thoughts and the poor health habits can impact physical as well as mental health. The impact of loneliness has been linked to depression, weight loss, increased blood pressure, loss of sleep, increase risk for cognitive loss or dementia, and even worsening of chronic health problems.
Feelings of loneliness are very subjective. Living alone does not necessarily imply loneliness. Some people can live alone without feeling lonely.
On the other hand some people feel lonely even when there are other people around. Family members might stop by to drop off groceries or water the lawn without taking the time to sit down for a conversation. Even people with 24 hour help in the home may feel lonely. People moving in and out to take care of things don’t usually engage in social interactions.
Loneliness is not a normal part of aging. Neither is depression. If an individual feels left out of life, isolated, and without companionship then loneliness is more likely. Even a family caregiver can feel lonely. Interesting demographic data about middle aged people shows an increase in people between the ages of 55 and 64 living alone. Since most caregivers are in this group, living alone can make a caregiver role even harder.
To deal with loneliness a person needs to feel a connection with another person. A person who listens and shares day-to-day events and thoughts. People need to be reminded in their daily interactions that they are still part of a community.
What can you do if your parent is isolated and alone and you suspect loneliness?
- Find ways to increase social interaction. This could be increased social visits by family and friends, or it could be providing assistance to find new groups with interests that are similar.
- Many older people are learning how to use online conversation helpers like Facetime and Snapchat. If you help your parent learn how to use these tools she can make connections with distant friends and relatives.
- Find ways for your parent to be engaged in the lives of other people. As a caregiver you can move beyond the tasks that need attention to be connected. None of us are so busy that we can’t take time to really connect with others.
- Share skills with others. Whatever your parent’s areas of expertise there are others who have similar interests or want to learn.
- Encourage your parent to invite others to visit instead of waiting for friends and family to take the initiative.
- Make it easier for your parent to take care of herself from eating nutritious meals, to exercise and better sleep.
- Find out about senior centers and other community-based organizations for older adults. Almost every community has a wide variety of opportunities to meet people with similar interests and make new connections.
In some communities agencies that serve older adults understand the seriousness of loneliness and are working to tackle it. They offer services to encourage volunteering, to make connections between people with similar interests, to provide reassurance for those who are alone. Understanding that night time and weekends can be the hardest times, a few communities have toll free numbers that older adults can call when they feel lonely. But the most obvious solution for most people is to engage with people they already know in a more positive way.