Loneliness is Impacting Your Health

We all feel lonely sometimes, but chronic loneliness is a serious health issue that needs intervention, especially among seniors.

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Everyone needs time to themselves and many who live alone have rich lives filled with friends and family. Yet, living alone and experiencing ongoing loneliness is one of the biggest health crises facing Canadians, especially seniors.

According to the latest census, more Canadians are living alone than ever before. About 28 percent of the 14.1 million households in the country are comprised of a single person ­­– the highest number in history, and many of these single people are seniors.

According to the latest census, more Canadians are living alone than ever before. About 28 percent of the 14.1 million households in the country are comprised of a single person ­­– the highest number in history, and many of these single people are seniors.

Living alone can result in social isolation, which can lead to serious health problems. A 2015 systematic review of 70 studies found loneliness increases the risk of an early death by 26 percent. Another 2016 review found inadequate social relationships heightened the risk of stroke by 32 percent.

“It can contribute to hypertension, to sleep disturbances, to depression and more,” says Ami Rokach, a psychologist and lecturer at York University in Toronto. “It can hasten death, especially with the elderly, which is just mind blowing.”

If you have a family member who might be feeling socially isolated, you should act to try to help the situation. Loneliness can be turned around – but there is no quick fix.

Seniors impacted most

Loneliness can affect anyone but, according to Rokach, those over 85 are most at risk, with some studies reporting 80 percent of people around that age experience loneliness compared to around 20 percent of seniors between 65 to 85.

“As you get older, people start losing loved ones, whether a spouse or friends, and adult children move away,” says Susana Braslavski, a social worker with Baycrest’s Seniors Counselling and Referral Program.

Also, health issues can cause seniors to be less active, which impacts their mood, she adds. Seniors can then feel too depressed to call a friend or attend their usual activities.

Help make connections

What can you do when a loved one is isolated? It’s not as simple as dropping them off at a community centre or enrolling them in a class, says Rokach. Why? Because many people don’t want to do a new activity alone. It can help to go with a friend, but it often takes several weeks before someone builds up the connections that make them want to go on their own accord, says Rokach.

Instead, start by listening more closely to your lonely parent, aunt or neighbour. Is a widower not going out because he thinks his coupled friends don’t want to hang out anymore? Is a grandparent not calling because they think their advice is unwanted? Once you know what the psychological barriers are, it’s easier to address them.

Sit down with that elderly relative and ask them whether they’d like to socialize more, and if so, how they can build more meaningful relationships in their life. Braslavski says many seniors already know what they want to do, so brainstorm with them instead of foisting your own ideas. But if you’re not getting anywhere, a therapist may be needed, suggests Rokach, as clinical depression or other serious issues might underpin the problem.

Picking up the phone can go a long way to easing loneliness in aging relatives, too. But meeting in person is even better, especially when you can arrange a get together where the senior feels like they can contribute, explains Rokach.

Protect yourself

Of course, anyone can feel alone and life events like retirement, a late-in-life divorce or a move to a new town can trigger lonely feelings.

Short-term loneliness is a normal response to what life throws at us, says Rokach, but if the feeling turns chronic and you start changing your routine and staying in more, you may have a problem. Push yourself to get to the gym regularly and making dinner plans with friends.

It’s hard to admit that you or a loved one are feeling lonely, but combating loneliness is a health issue, just like any other. Fortunately, “loneliness doesn’t have to be inevitable,” explains Rokach. “There are ways of overcoming it.”

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