Twenty-seven percent of older adults live alone. While it’s possible to feel isolated even while surrounded by people, contact with others can be a powerful inoculant against loneliness. Social isolation is a serious public health threat. That’s because loneliness doesn’t just feel awful — it’s awful for you.
One study found that social isolation may even be physically painful, nearly doubling the risk of both chronic and acute pain. Other research suggests that it may be as bad for your health as smoking. Humans are social beings who evolved to live among others. Our relationships protect us and nurture our mental health. Maybe that’s why loneliness can feel dangerous. The brain recognizes that it’s missing out on a basic need and sounds the alarm bell.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is the longest-running longitudinal study of human health and development. The study’s most central finding is that good relationships are the most important ingredient in the recipe for living well and longer.
Social Connections: The Key to a Long and Happy Life
Loneliness affects your health in ways both direct and indirect. In a Brigham Young University review of 148 studies with more than 300,000 participants across the world, researchers found that high levels of social connectedness increased annual survival by 50%.
Another large longitudinal study found that people over 70 with strong friendship networks were 22% less likely to die over the decade-long study period.
Our brains crave connection, and our bodies suffer without it. Despite this, many of us focus on other pursuits. The dominant culture tells us that wealth, power, prestige, the right possessions or any number of other things will satisfy us. That’s rarely true. Relationships are what make life worth living — and what can keep you living longer.
So, why is social connection so important?
Chronic stress is terrible for your health, increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and more. It can also make any preexisting health problems worse. But the people you love are a powerful antidote. They help reduce stress, listen to you as you vent, and support you to live a happier, healthier life.
Relationships with other people help keep your brain active. This can reduce your risk of a myriad of conditions, including dementia.
Meaningful relationships can also inspire you to adopt healthy habits. You might go for a walk with your best friend or meet your neighbor for a day at the park. And if you have a loving, active spouse, it may be easier to get and stay active together.
How to Combat Social Isolation in Older Adults
It’s never too late to deepen the social connections you have or to nurture new ones. Whether you’re a known extrovert or known only for your curmudgeonly approach, positive changes can have positive effects at all stages of life. The benefits begin immediately and last for a lifetime. This means it’s never too late for anyone to become more socially connected. You can enjoy the benefits right now.
Here are some simple strategies for combating social isolation in older adults:
Master the art of friendship.
If you want to nurture more relationships, it’s easy to focus on what you want from your relationships. But what are you offering?
Friendship is a skill, and the more you flex your relationship muscles, the stronger they’ll get. Some tips that can help you become a better friend include:
- Show a genuine interest in others. Ask them questions about themselves. Listen more than you talk.
- Be willing to accept feedback and criticism from others. Apologizing when you’re wrong or when you make a mistake is a sign of strength and caring, not weakness.
- Know what you’re willing to offer and to whom. Just as good fences make good neighbors, good boundaries make for fair and resentment-free relationships.
- Ask your friends what they need, especially in difficult times.
- Know that being a loving presence is often more important than saying or doing the right thing.
Connect across distance.
As you’ve grown older, you’ve probably seen friends change jobs, causing them to move across the country or the world. Your grandkids might have gone away to college, and your neighbors may be on the other side of the country now. Social media is not a substitute for deep, rich connections. But it is a powerful tool for connecting to the people you already know and love. Try these strategies:
- Consider setting up a regular video chat with someone you love.
- Offer positive feedback and likes on social media rather than just endlessly scrolling.
- Set up a family group chat to share news and other updates.
- Start a blog where you can share your own experiences. A blog can give birth to your memoirs or just serve as a virtual meeting space for your family.
Take up a new hobby.
One of the gifts of growing older is that you may have fewer obligations than you once did — no more crying babies keeping you up all night before you go to work the next day, no more fighting rush hour to get to the office, and perhaps less pressure to climb the corporate ladder or demonstrate your financial success.
This may mean more time to do the things you truly love. Consider joining a book club, a SilverSneakers group or a gardening club or enrolling in classes at your local community college. No matter who you are or what you’re into, you can find something someone will love to do with you. Connecting over hobbies is a great way to feel less alone and more understood.
The right senior living community may offer additional support in the form of classes, live music and other events that inspire new interests.
Make the most of everyday opportunities.
All face-to-face interactions can boost your mood and lower stress. It feels good to be kind to others and great when they’re kind in return. Take the time and make it a point to say hello, offer a smile or chat briefly with the mail carrier, the cashier and others. Ask a question if you're inclined. Lean in a bit. Over time, you may get to know these folks, adding more friendly faces to your social network.
Consider a Life Plan Community.
One of the challenges of combating social isolation is that periodic social contact is often not enough. Even if you have great friends, you may feel lonely if you only see them once a month and spend the rest of your time alone.
A Life Plan Community brings a variety of relationship types under one roof. You’ll live among people who, like you, want to be more active and engaged. Greeting them each morning may make life feel more connected. The staff may add consistency and additional points of contact to your day, and group events and outings make finding something meaningful to do much easier. And, of course, you’ll likely form some deep and lasting friendships too.
The right Life Plan Community makes it easy to avoid isolation, nurture connections both new and old, and live life on your own terms as you define them. Learn more about what makes these vibrant spaces unique and how to choose the right fit for your needs.