No matter where we are in life or what age we are, making new friends and creating new connections can be challenging. As we get older, opportunities to meet people decline, leaving us to just the handful of friends who have stuck by us through the years. After retirement, everything just gets that much harder. And because we’re so busy with our lives, we may not realize that building a relationship is vital for senior health.
It’s basic biology
Before diving into senior specific issues, it’s important to put all the cards on the table: we human beings are wired for social connection at our most fundamental level. Our biology evolved to experience the social environment the same way we experience the physical world, including systems that regulate our social experiences.
It doesn’t take scientific articles to confirm this, we only need to look at our personal experiences. We experience the pleasure of company, the devastation of heartbreak, the grief of loss. Those feelings are part of a biological network that forms our experience, right down to the hormones like dopamine and oxytocin that reward our positive social experiences with positive emotions.
Why relationships matter more for seniors
Why talk about biology? Doesn’t it matter for everyone?
There are countless articles on the positive and negative impacts of social relationships for seniors. The truth is that seniors are not typically the first demographic we think of when we talk about things like “loneliness” or “depression.” But the statistics about isolation, loneliness, and depression among the senior population are astounding.
- Lack of social relationships is as strong a risk factor for mortality as are smoking, obesity or lack of physical activity
- Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.
- Douglas Nemecek, MD, chief medical officer for behavioral health, Cigna (emphasis added)
- The quality and quantity of individuals’ social relationships have been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality.
- Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
- Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
- Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663
To read the full report on Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults visit https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25663/social-isolation-and-loneliness-in-older-adults-opportunities-for-the
How do seniors become isolated and lonely?
While every senior ages differently, there are many common experiences, including:
- Chronic health problems
- Limited mobility
- Increasingly, more seniors are living alone
- Family no longer lives nearby
- Death or separation from a long-term partner
- Inability to maintain physical or mental activity
- Hearing and/or vision loss
- Lack of opportunity or ageism
- Removal from social environments such as work or volunteering
We are taught to respect our elders. That reverence for them can inadvertently lead to us isolating them emotionally and physically; we don’t want to appear disrespectful by acknowledging the signs of aging they are experiencing. Take the time to talk with them, and be proactive by finding ways to connect with other seniors who understand what they’re going through.
The “domino” effect
Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.
Steve Cole, Ph.D., director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles
One truism seniors face is that one problem can cascade into many, each impacting one another. For example, seniors who get the flu are more likely to have a heart attack or stroke 2-4 weeks after recovering because of the body’s systemic inflammatory response to fight the flu.
The same is true for isolation, loneliness, and depression. Referring to the list of how seniors become isolated or lonely, it’s not hard to imagine a senior who experiences a chronic health issue becoming isolated. That, in turn, could cause the senior to feel lonely and eventually depressed, leading to a lack of motivation to maintain physical and mental activity. That lack of activity could lead to loss of muscle mass, weight loss, dementia, and on and on.
Just like that, the dominoes fall into a cascade of issues that can dramatically affect the senior’s health and wellness.
The power of positive relationships for seniors
While the downside can seem overwhelming, there is an equally positive upside to the importance of connections for seniors.
Making friends can be a great solution to physical inactivity; when friends encourage each other, seniors can take the extra step towards exercising (sometimes even without knowing it). Just meeting up in the mall to go shopping or going on a morning walk with a few friends can have such a significant benefit to their health.
Here’s an interesting fact: adults who are encouraged by their friends to get health screenings are 10 to 22 percent more likely to do so, which means that health issues can be detected early and treated with a higher success rate. With this in mind, make sure that your older loved one gets enough fresh air, exercise, and does all the recommended medical screenings and tests. And while this can be a difficult task to do, the stress of caring for your older relatives will lessen if such activities were already part of their natural routine with friends and family.
Positive actions to combat loneliness
- It’s ok to admit you’re lonely, feel isolated, or feel depressed
- Understand your feelings matter and seek help
- Take a class
- Engage with a faith community
- Consider a senior living community
Sometimes, seniors just need an opportunity to meet new people. Neighbors and good friends can have many different meanings to our elderly loved ones: an opportunity for physical activity, a chance to leave the house, someone to turn to when they’re in need, someone to share a conversation, games, or books with, and so forth. Furthermore, research shows that the rate of cognitive decline was reduced by an average of 70% in persons who were frequently socially active compared to persons who were infrequently socially active.
Making the move to a senior living community is an especially positive and effective way to become socially connected. Besides the apparent proximity to a support community, senior living adds the benefits of reducing the “domino effect” by supporting each of the major senior risk areas. Communities with a quality resident services program will typically have an introductory period for new residents and a resident ambassador to ease the transition of meeting new peer groups who share common interests. Amenities and services like a quality dining program support residents’ physical and mental health. The number #1 comment for most new residents is “I should have done this years ago,” as they begin to experience an overall improvement in their lives.
Helping our older loved ones stay social is now just as important as their physical and mental needs. Friends and family and the community that we build around ourselves can be a great source of encouragement, support, and deeper connections. For more details on why it’s essential to build such relationships and facilitate them, read up on our guide here. Be sure to make the most out of your relationship with your older loved ones, and help them create lasting friendships to keep them healthy and happy.
Follow up resources