lonely seniorA 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association compilation of many studies’ results concluded that a link between loneliness and fatal heart disease exists.

In Sweden, medical researchers discovered that the mortality rate of coronary bypass patients who’d checked the “I feel lonely” box was 2.5 times higher than other patients 30 days after surgery and was twice as high even five years later.

A Brigham Young University study covering more than 300,000 people found that loneliness was just as strong a marker for early death as alcoholism and heavy cigarette smoking.

Even when loneliness doesn’t kill, it can still cause serious damage. A Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatryfollowed more than 2,000 older adults free of dementia. After three years, more than twice as many who reported feeling lonely had developed dementia as those who had strong social support.

But unlike physical disabilities, loneliness doesn’t have to be a chronic condition. Here are 5 things you can help your parents do about it:

  1. Determine the cause – Loneliness has more causes than you may think. Physical isolation and lack of a network of family and friends are the most obvious ones, but they’ve got lots of company. Health conditions – such as disability, depression, mental illness, fatigue or chronic pain – can make your parents (or other adults their age) isolate themselves. So can emotions, such as fear and shame. Fear of falling, driving or using public transportation. Shame over being seen using a walker or revealing memory problems in public. Our detailed, three-part assessment can determine exactly what your mother or father’s specific physical, psychosocial and mental needs are and then points the way to taking care of them.
  2. Help them be more mobile – One of the biggest excuses for self-imposed isolation is lack of transportation. And the suburban counties surrounding Richmond have next to nothing in the way of public transportation. We can provide reliable drivers  who have gone through national, state and local criminal sex offender and driving records checks, are experienced in taking good care of seniors, and can match their schedules to your parents’. Or you could set them up with a Lyft or Uber account, charged to your credit card so they won’t fret about the cost.
  3. (Re)establish family closeness – Gerontologist Kerry Burnight recommends that you find some quiet time to sit down with your parent(s), eye to eye, and tell them how much they mean to you. If the two of you are already close, tell them how happy that makes you. If not, talk about ways you both can be closer. Then ask who else they feel close to, or would like to be close with. Take the time to listen – lovingly, patiently, carefully, and with an ear picking out ways to increase your parent’s social integration.
  4. Fill the holes in your parent’s social network – Human contact is great for preventing a whole slew of health issues. So look into programs that get older adults together – at the Y, at the JCC, or Senior Connections, the Capital Area Agency on Aging’s daily Friendship Cafes. You might also want to consider housing options like senior apartment complexes or independent communities. With extensive experience in the senior housing industry, we can neutrally analyze all your options and tell you the pluses and minuses of each. If your parent’s dealing with a health condition or grieving the loss of a spouse, a support group can let them share feelings and support with others in the same boat.
  5. Remember that human contact needn’t always be face to face – Social interactions can be big or small, short or long, with family members, friends, acquaintances, and total strangers. Talking on the phone is a social interaction. So is sending or receiving a letter or email, or waving to someone across the street. As are texting, tweeting, reading and posting Facebook updates, and commenting on favorite website and blog articles. Thanks to technology, living alone doesn’t have to mean living in isolation.