Loneliness: A Serious Problem Plaguing Some Seniors

For years geriatricians, doctors, and psychologists have told older aging adults who complained of being lonely to “Go out and find something that matters to you and do it.”  

But that advice didn’t work most of the time because what lonely seniors really want are close relationships with other people they can care about, social roles that would bring them satisfaction and a sense that their lives still have value.

Linda Fried, who is a geriatrician and the dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University says that social institutions need to bring meaning and purpose to the lives of older adults.  She recently spoke to a panel of the National Academies of Sciences investigating loneliness and social isolation among older adults.  

There has been growing interest in the topic of loneliness and social isolation in older adults over recent years and over the last year four surveys have been taken to examine the extent of it.  

The surveys were taken by Cigna, AARP, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the University of Michigan. Furthermore, health-care systems, social service agencies, health insurers, and senior housing operators are either starting or expanding initiatives to provide services to meet the senior loneliness situation.

There are degrees of loneliness. There are people who are sometimes lonely and those who are always lonely. Those who are sometimes or moderately lonely are able to go in and out of this state. 

There are health risks to loneliness such as having higher risk of heart disease, dementia, immune dysfunction, physical functional impairmentand early death. And it all depends on the severity of loneliness.  Those who are severely lonely are at ‘high risk’ while the moderately lonely are at a ‘lower risk.’

The statistics are alarming in that between 33 and 43 percent of older Americans say they are lonely.  But it turns out that those in the ‘high risk’ category is relatively low.

There are also different types of loneliness: emotional, social, collective loneliness and existential loneliness. Emotional loneliness happens when there is a lack in intimate relationships. Social loneliness occurs when contact with family, friend or neighbors or other community members is not satisfying. And collective loneliness happens when a person does not feel valued by the broader community in general. Existential loneliness exists when an individual has a sense that life lacks meaning or purpose.Some of the root causes of loneliness are due to perception