Easing elderly people’s loneliness can help keep them healthy, research suggests.
A study showed that people who feel lonely – whether living alone or with others – are at an increased risk of death. The study also revealed that 43 percent of people over 60 are lonely.
“If someone reports feeling lonely, they are more likely to lose their independence and they are at greater risk of dying solely from being lonely,” said Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician and author of the study.
Research shows older adults who feel lonely are at a heightened risk of memory loss, strokes and heart disease. Loneliness has also been linked to physical inactivity, poor sleep, high blood pressure and poor immune function.
Simply being alone isn’t the only thing that can cause loneliness, Perissinotto added. Illness, hearing loss, loss of a family member, or life changes like retirement can also be factors.
“The usual social connections we have in younger life end up changing as we get older,” she noted.
Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, a non-profit organization in San Francisco, pairs seniors with volunteers to help relieve isolation and loneliness. 83-year-old Emil Girardi is one of the seniors the organization has helped.
About ten years ago, Girardi experienced a stroke and collapsed outside near his San Francisco home. The experience changed everything for him.
“I didn’t want to go out of the house,” Girardi recalled, adding he was only comfortable going between the bedroom and the living room.
Little Brothers matched Girardi with 67-year-old Shipra Narruhn, who became involved with the organization after her mother’s passing. The relationship started with visits to Girardi’s apartment and slowly progressed to social outings.
“Shipra came to see me, and came to see me and came to see me,” he said. “Finally, she said, ‘You have to get out of the house.'”
Soon, they were attending shows and walking to the park. His fear began to subside along with his loneliness.
“Maintaining connections, that touchy-feely thing, is indeed unequivocally important,” Perissinotto said. “It’s tough to measure, it’s tough to quantify, yet there is something real.”
While Girardi’s loneliness was eased through the program, there is little research about the effectiveness of organizations like Little Brothers. Other services to help with loneliness include roommate matching and call-in hotlines.
“Even though we don’t have the exact research, we have tons of stories where we know it’s had an effect in people’s lives,” Perissinotto says.
AARP Foundation is also working to raise awareness of social isolation and loneliness in seniors. They’ve launched a network called Connect2Affect, which allows people to build social connections with others who are feeling disconnected.