Nearly three in ten American seniors live alone, according to the National Institute on Aging, at nearly 13.8 million people. There’s nothing wrong with seniors maintaining their independence, but it’s important to recognize the benefits of socializing for seniors and the hazards of neglecting the social aspect of senior life. This article will highlight the benefits of socialization in seniors, with some ideas on how to avoid the dangers of isolation.
Why is Socialization Important for Seniors?
People are inherently social. This may seem obvious and self-evident, but a growing amount of research confirms the social aspect of human life. According to Dr. Craig Sawchuk, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic psychologist, “We are social animals by nature, so we tend to function better when we’re in a community setting and being around others.” Unfortunately, seniors are more likely to isolate or experience loneliness than the rest of the population. A study by the UCSF Division of Geriatrics found that 43% of seniors regularly experience loneliness.
As seniors get older, their risk of isolation increases. To prevent the negative effects of loneliness and isolation in seniors, it’s especially important for seniors (and their loved ones) to be proactive about staying engaged throughout the day.
The Health Hazards of Senior Isolation
Senior isolation affects nearly every aspect of their lives. On top of the effects on mood and mental health, isolation often leads to physical deterioration. In a study from the National Academy of Sciences, lonely and isolated seniors showed higher rates of poor physical and mental health. Additionally, individuals with limited social lives are more likely to suffer from the following health concerns:
Coronary artery disease
Alzheimers (and other forms of dementia)
Social isolation and loneliness in older adults has also been associated with unhealthy behaviors like physical inactivity and smoking.
Risk factors of social isolation for seniors
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), seniors have an increased risk of perceived loneliness and social isolation when compared to the rest of the U.S. population. Factors that increase the risk of isolation in seniors include:
Being over the age of 80
Chronic health conditions
Limited contact with friends and family
Lack of resources
It’s important to understand the potential health risks for seniors who are susceptible to social isolation. In a recent CDC publication, a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine concluded that social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes. These risks may rival those of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity, especially with older adults. In this study, loneliness and social isolation were associated with approximately a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
The Mental Health Benefits of Socialization in Seniors
Psychology and mental health has received increasing attention in the past decades, especially as it relates to health overall. Seniors represent a particularly vulnerable population when it comes to mental health concerns. According to The Lancet, depression has an especially serious impact on seniors with ongoing medical conditions. Depression has been shown to worsen disability, increase the severity of chronic illness, raise mortality rates, and cause suffering for seniors and their families.
Fortunately, socialization has been shown to be one of the most effective ways for seniors to improve their mental health. According to the American Public Health Association, socialization improves mood, cognition, memory recall, and is associated with healthy behaviors, including exercise. Connecting with family and friends through technology, exercise, games like bingo and cards, and other activities has a profound effect on the mental health of seniors.
How to Promote Socialization in Seniors
As people get older, there is a natural tendency to get less active. Over time, seniors can settle into inactive routines and grow increasingly sedentary. For many seniors, it’s easier to watch TV alone than to go out with friends or enroll in an exercise program. Older adults need to be proactive about their activity levels, or their health will deteriorate. Here are some ideas and opportunities to increase socialization in seniors: