There has been concern regarding isolation, loneliness, and the elderly for quite some time. In fact, within Canada, the National Council of Seniors made social isolation among seniors their priority for 2013-2014. The terms ‘social isolation’ and ‘loneliness’ are often used interchangeably, however, they are not the same health issue.
Researchers have stated that these two terms need to be differentiated. Social isolation is a situation or objective state, in that an individual does not have enough people to interact with; whereas loneliness is the experience and distress of not having those beneficial interactions and relationships.
Of course, they go hand-in-hand, but there are plenty of people who are isolated, yet do not feel lonely — just as someone who is exposed to a large social network, can still feel alone. In that sense, a lack of interactions does not cause loneliness, so what does? How are these health risks affecting the senior population?
What the Research Has to Say
When it comes to what causes loneliness, one theory is that it’s the way in which someone perceives themselves, as well as their peers. Those who often feel lonely, tend to believe that people will reject them, displaying feeling or low self-worth. Both loneliness and social isolation have been studied extensively regarding the potential health consequences.
Throughout the literature, few studies examine both social isolation and loneliness. In that sense, it’s challenging to know if one is more damaging than the other. Regardless, the research shows that social isolation and loneliness are both health risks.
A meta-analysis of 148 studies, focused on the cause and effect relationship between social isolation and mortality. The authors concluded that more social relationships resulted in a decreased mortality risk. The conclusion was, a lack of social relationships may be as strong a risk factor for mortality as obesity or smoking. Also, it appears that mobility begins to decline more rapidly in those who are lonely.
Within one Dutch study, it was found that people who felt lonely, were 64 percent more likely to develop dementia. They concluded that feelings of loneliness independently contributed to the development of clinical dementia, rather than ‘being alone.’ Meaning, there was a clear distinction between each of these independent health risks and that the perceived absence of social interaction has what increased the risk of cognitive decline.
Who’s at Risk and What Can Be Done?
The population who is at greatest risk of loneliness and social isolation are seniors. By the age of 80, most people live alone — commonly because of widowhood. Social networks tend to become smaller as siblings and friends pass away. In many cases, children and grandchildren do not live close by, resulting in feelings of loneliness.
Within a recent study, it was found that 20 percent of Canadians over the age of 65 felt lonely some of the time. The greatest risk factors for loneliness and social isolation include sensory impairments, disability, living alone, health problems, and the loss of a spouse.
Since social isolation arises from a lack of relationships, whereas loneliness is caused by the perception of insufficient relationships, each would require a unique approach. For social isolation, social programs, and even telephone conversations could reduce social isolation.
In terms of loneliness, a review examined 50 studies that focused on interventions, including several that focused on changing perceptions. Within one example, a workshop focused on identifying positive relationships from the past and how positive aspects could be applied to current relationships. Overall, it was found that changing maladaptive perceptions were, in fact, the most effective.
If you are concerned that your loved one may be lonely, ask them how often they feel isolated or left out. If you yourself are lonely or isolated, please become more aware of active living programs, transportation options, and community events. In some cases, there may be an underlying mental health issue that needs to be addressed.
For information can be found via the National Seniors Council.
photo credit: Where next ? via photopin (license)
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