Four Tips to Help Seniors Overcome Social Isolation

When families think about how to help parents as they age, they tend to focus on physical and environmental challenges. “I’m worried about dad tripping and falling,” or “Keeping the house clean has become too demanding of a task for mom” are concerns we often hear from adult children when they’re looking for guidance on helping their parent live comfortably as they age. Environmental and physical considerations are essential, and emotional well-being is often a secondary concern or a simple afterthought.

Ensuring an aging parent’s emotional needs are met can be difficult. Parents are often reluctant to tell their children they are lonely or might not recognize feelings of loneliness themselves. Seniors who experience loneliness and social isolation have a harder time aging in place and experience worse health than their peers who have a strong social network. Researchers place social isolation in the same category as smoking 15 cigarettes per day and being an alcoholic. Conversely, seniors who are socially connected and have strong relationships have lower levels of stress, a reduced risk of dementia and stronger immune systems.

Experts warn that social isolation and loneliness are heading into epidemic territory for the senior population. We all recognize the importance of having a conversation with elderly parents about home safety. In addition, we should hold discussions about emotional well-being on the same level. The conversation can be as simple as encouraging them to stay involved in the community and connecting them with opportunities to use the skills and knowledge they’ve gained over the course of their lifetime. Here are several recommendations for helping a parent avoid feelings of loneliness or social isolation:

  1. Join community groups – Seniors often lose a large piece of their social network when they retire. By staying active with civic or religious organizations, they can maintain routine contact with others in their community.
  2. Take classes – Increasingly, universities and community colleges are offering courses geared specifically to seniors. Not only will attending class help seniors maintain a social network, but these classes will also provide them with the opportunity to keep their minds sharp and learn new things.
  3. Seek out volunteer opportunities – From volunteering at the local library to helping Habitat for Humanity build a house, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities to fit every ability level and interest. If you are unsure where to begin, most local Area Agencies on Aging offices maintain a list of volunteer opportunities for seniors. The Corporation for National and Community Service has a special program, Senior Corps, with opportunities specifically for seniors.
  4. Embrace Technology – Many seniors have taken to Facebook and learned how to use an iPad, so they can Facetime with grandchildren. Writing in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Shelia R Cotton found that the Internet can be beneficial for decreasing loneliness and increasing social contact among older adults.