Over 13 percent of Americans are 65 and older. Over the next 20 years that number is expected to nearly double. At the same time, disabilities, widowhood, divorce and retirement are just some of the things that may play a role in a serious public health issue. That issue is loneliness. Studies have shown that social isolation poses a health risk for individuals 50 and over and is as important of a predictor of premature death as alcoholism or a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit. Loneliness opens people up to serious issues with neglect, abandonment and abuse. Those places in the world in which the inhabitants live a healthier, longer life span incorporate strong family relationships and a sense of community. While those values aren’t exactly anathema to Americans, they do frequently lose out to the American belief in independence and self-reliance.
Here are some suggestions for preventing isolation in your life.
Your neighborhood has changed and all the people you used to know have either moved or died; or you feel cut off because the new neighbors are young professionals who are working all day; or you can no longer drive and it’s no longer convenient to go to all your usual hangouts. Perhaps your spouse has died and there’s no one else at home. Illness, grief, boredom can all contribute to depression but another aspect of each of those things is that you can lose touch with important contacts as you concentrate on getting better.
Find transportation options. Although improving, American roads and automobiles are not designed with the elderly in mind. Those skills and physical capabilities often disappear with age. That leaves many seniors without a whole lot of options. Public transportation has taken a lot of hits with the recession so those options may be even more limited. At the moment, depending upon your community, you have essentially three options: door-to-door or demand response requires advanced reservations; fixed route have fixed stops on a route; and rideshare programs which coordinate rides and usually involve scheduled routes with specific destinations. Contact your local Area Agency on Aging for transportation options that might not be readily known.
Move. Moving closer to family members or other loved ones, moving into a senior living facility, or moving closer to favorite activities can instill new excitement and offer opportunities for social interaction and conversation. Many seniors dread moving to senior housing only to discover that the interaction with other residents, the opportunities to participate in a plethora of activities and their locations (usually very close to medical, shopping and entertainment venues) enrich their lives to the point that they wish they had moved sooner.
Adopt technology. Facebook, Skype, e-mail and texting offer options for keeping up on what’s going on with family members and allows them to check in on you as well. They also allow you to know what activities are happening that you might be interested in.
Babysit. There’s nothing like children to make you feel young. Ideally, you would care for your own grandchildren or great-grandchildren but often they live too far away. Offer to care for children of one of those newly moved in young professionals in your neighborhood. The neighborhood will feel less isolating.
Volunteer. One study found that 80 percent of nonprofits rely on volunteers for critical activities but the relationship can be beneficial to both the volunteer and the organization. Volunteering offers opportunities to build new relationships around an interest that you care about while providing services that simply would not be available otherwise.
Find a hobby. Many hobbies are by their nature solitary but there are groups that participate in nearly everything from birding to writing to building model railroad setups. A good resource for finding like minded people is your local library. If you don’t already have a hobby, consider taking a class on something you have an interest in. Most community and four year colleges offer classes for senior’s interests and budgets but other places to look include libraries and community centers such as the YMCA or parks department.
Support groups. Having the ability to share your experiences, your triumphs, your pitfalls or concerns is a great way to learn more about something that affects you deeply while learning from people who are going through the same thing. You can find support groups online, at your library, and with healthcare providers.
Get a social calendar. Schedule time with friends and family and maintain that time. If you let it slide for awhile, get back in the habit of putting important people back in your life. Don’t wait for them to contact you as they may think that you need time to yourself.
Exercise. Exercising in your community, either by joining a club or by doing your exercises in a public place will provide you opportunities to meet with like-minded people and the natural release of endorphins will help to address depressive symptoms.
Smile. The Huffington Post ran a story recently about a woman that made it a point to wave each day to middle schoolers. It turned out that the benefits worked both ways. Be prepared to tear up if you check out the video link.
Trade services. If you enjoy cooking, gardening etc. trade those services with someone with a vehicle that needs help with those services.