We need to Talk About Social Isolation and Loneliness in Seniors

Isolation

Seniors are at increased risks of social isolation

When you’re living an over-stimulated life – working a stressful job, trying to navigate the post-COVID world, and utilizing social media as a form of interaction more and more each day – it’s easy to overlook populations of individuals who are at a detriment from lack of socialization. Like many young introverts living in the collectivistic culture of South Florida, I’ve developed many techniques to avoid human interaction with others.  Keep your head down, don’t make eye contact, and if someone talks to you, always pretend that you’ve seen and heard nothing.

All of that changed for me when I met “abuelita”. Nilda (who just celebrated her 79th birthday) is a vivacious spirit, born and raised in Cuba and currently living in a spare bedroom rental in Miami. FL. Though there is a language barrier between abuelita and I, we’ve developed our own love language of waving enthusiastically and blowing air besitos at one another on my daily walks past her patio to check the mail. Rain or shine, and despite the sometimes 100-degree weather, abuelita sits in her wicker chair – gradually (and cheerfully) adopting each member of our apartment complex into her familia.

Companionship in Later Life

As a social and organizational psychologist, I am no stranger to the textbook definitions of phenomena like ageism, elderly abuse, and social isolation. Statistics support the laundry list of detrimental effects that a lack of human interaction and meaningful companionship can have on an individual’s psychological and physiological health. The CDC notes that within the elderly community, the experience of prolonged social isolation and loneliness heightens the risk of premature death, dementia, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and suicide (among others).

People like abuelita – immigrants with few or even no familial or social ties in the United States – are at a greater risk of experiencing the health-related symptoms of lack of companionship. Even seniors with a well-established social network are feeling the effects of isolation as quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic has become the new normal. For all older adults, consistent companionship and interpersonal connections are a priority demanding urgent attention. The drastic change between abuelita’s demeanor when she is sitting alone versus when she is engaging within our small community is just one example of how providing the aging community with a source of interconnectedness can literally save lives.

Simple Things Can Make a Big Difference

Though emotional connections are a significant factor in decreasing loneliness for older adults, seniors often have additional needs that, when left unmet, can interfere with their ability to lead healthy, happy lives.

Transportation

You can always tell when abuelita has a big day planned, whether it’s an afternoon of doctor’s appointments or a trip to see a friend. In addition to her stylish outfits and extra-enthusiastic afternoon besitos, she always has a smile on her face when she knows she’s going on an adventure.  Abuelita is a firm believer that no matter how old you are, you still have places to go and things to achieve in your life.

One of the most heartbreaking things is seeing abuelita meticulously plan for a trip, just to be met with the disappointment of doctor’s office shuttles that never arrive or buses refusing to take her because they are ill-equipped to aid senior riders. For abuelita, unreliable transportation means a lack of ability to access the medical care that she needs. It means that the few social connections that she has beyond our small community are out of reach, and it drives a wedge between her and the world.

Seniors who are no longer able to drive or utilize public transit need reliable, competent, caring individuals to help them remain connected to their lives and able to access necessities like medical care. Lack of reliable transportation prevents older adults from working, volunteering, socializing, attending religious activities, and engaging in recreational activities that can prevent feelings of social isolation and help people like abuelita continue to look forward to the things that bring meaning to their lives.

Personal Assistance & Homemaking

Just as older adults need reliable mobility options, there may be tasks or errands that a senior may no longer be able to complete on their own. For these older adults, personal assistance with activities like grocery shopping, household chores, and technological help can be critical in allowing seniors to continue living independently in their own homes. The NIH emphasizes the importance of access to the right help so that older adults can ‘age in place’ as opposed to be moved to assisted living facilities or nursing homes.

Abuelita is fortunate to have our small village working together to make daily tasks easier on her. Since moving in with me, my boyfriend has become abuelita’s personal assistant in maintaining her front lawn and taking out the trash. A neighbor and her daughter come over every few days to help abuelita sweep her patio (and engage in community chisme). Though she is skeptical of my ability to cook with any sort of flavor, abuelita knows that there are people who will make sure she doesn’t go hungry if she’s unable to prepare food for herself.

Many seniors don’t have a community of able-bodied friends and family to assist with these necessities of day-to-day life. Personal assistants and homemaker services ensure that older adults can safely age in place and get the help that they need during the day to live satisfying lives.

Friendly Reassurance

One of the most important lessons I have learned from abuelita is that even when all of someone’s physiological and safety needs are met, you can have a tremendous impact on others just by checking in to see how they are doing. Short visits, phone calls, text messages, and other ways of reaching out can prevent members of the senior community from feeling forgotten, and ensure that there is a lifeline open in the case of an emergency. Senior check-in services ensure that our loved ones are cared for even if we are unable to physically or emotionally care from them ourselves.

Taking Care of Your Abuelita

Whether it’s a family member, a loved one, or a neighbor, the elderly are important members of our community and culture that deserve to live their lives independently and with dignity and respect. If you or someone you know has an abuelita in need of assistance, Hero Senior Care is ready to provide caring, educated, and professional support with a variety of services in the South Florida area.

About The Author

Jennifer L. Houston, PhD

Educator at Florida International Institute

Dr. Jennifer L. Houston is a professional in the fields of organizational, industrial, and cognitive psychology. She is currently a professor at Florida International University, teaching courses related to interpersonal behavior, theories of personality, cognitive neuroscience, and psychological stress and coping. Dr. Houston is a strong advocate for mental health awareness and social equality.

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