Creating ways for seniors to combat isolation
by Michelle Meier
This time of year can be challenging for those who live with any level of isolation. Between the holidays and the weather, this time of year can be quite dangerous for seniors who spend a significant amount of time alone.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 28% of people aged 65 and older live alone. While living alone does not inevitably lead to social isolation, it can certainly be a contributing factor. Researchers at the University of Chicago found that loneliness in older adults also results in a lowered immune response and increased inflammation. All of these physical and mental health outcomes create burdens on public health resources and can reduce an individual’s quality of life.
When over 1,600 adults over the age of 60 in the U.S. were asked how often they felt lonely or excluded, 43% said often or some of the time. Nearly 25% of adults who reported feeling lonely also reported that they had trouble carrying out activities of daily living. Beyond the effects on daily living, a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. These statistics demonstrate that finding ways to combat isolation is pivotal to the health and well-being of older adults. The good news is that there are many ways to do this at a personal level, as well as at the community level.
Sense of Purpose
One way to avoid feelings of isolation is to find a sense of purpose. Having hobbies, a daily routine and volunteering or joining a church choir or other senior groups can create a connection to something larger than yourself, providing the drive to live beyond the basic tasks of everyday living.
Finding your purpose at any stage of life can happen, even when you aren’t looking for one. It often clicks when you least expect it. The trick is acknowledging the fact that it won’t come to you if you sit and wait for it. You may get a simple request from a friend that seems like nothing more than a chance to get out of the house for the afternoon. That small request may result in a connection that provides you with a new connection.
Whether you are looking for a new passion or just spending time with others, it’s important to get out there. There are many opportunities in the community to spend time with peers who, like you, might be looking to quench their thirst for knowledge, keep healthy or just find a friend. From the Lifelong Recreation series with Lawrence Parks & Recreation, the Retirement Boot Camp series at the Lawrence Public Library, Lifelong Learning courses at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, genealogy offerings at Watkins Museum, to the new Game Room at the Senior Resource Center, there are opportunities nearly every day of the week to get out and stay engaged. Who knows? You may find a new hobby or make a connection with new people who enjoy the things you do.
Removing Barriers at Home
For those who live alone and may not have family or friends to engage with, the idea of reaching out to others for anything can seem overwhelming and even inconceivable. Many feel that no one could understand until they realize that there may be others who feel just the same nearby. It may start with a simple hello each day, but consider meeting them for coffee or asking the young family down the street to help with your mail a couple of days a week and have them stop by for a chat.
There are also many programs in the community, including Community Village Lawrence and other church-based groups such as the Friendly Visitors from Catholic Charities, which can provide basic companionship. They can also coordinate home-visitation services, telephone reassurance groups, as well as help with small home maintenance projects.
One important component of staying socially engaged and avoiding social isolation may come down to something as simple as access to transportation. Isolation can set in very quickly for those who no longer drive. There are numerous methods of affordable transportation dedicated to serving the senior population in the area, including several levels of public transportation in Lawrence, as well as the Senior Wheels program from the Senior Resource Center. The Senior Wheels program recently expanded to provide a dedicated van for seniors in the Eudora community and has added a monthly shuttle from Lecompton to Lawrence to assist seniors who have limited options for shopping in that community.
It can be hard to remain engaged and social during this time of year. With uncertainty about the weather and trying to fit in time with friends and families with busy lives, anyone can find themselves feeling isolated and alone. The good news is that our community is rich with opportunities for older adults to stay engaged. There are also many organizations, such as the Senior Resource Center, that can make sure you have the support to remain active both inside and outside your home.
Michelle Meier is the director of community engagement for the Senior Resource Center for Douglas County, a community partner of LMH Health, which is a major sponsor of the Lawrence Journal-World’s Health section.