Helping Elders Feel Less Lonely

Joe hasn’t felt engaged in life since he retired. Mary stopped feeling connected when her husband died. Lucy has arthritis and can’t get around well on her own. Bill’s health is fine, but making sure that his wife, who has Alzheimer’s, gets the care she needs consumes his time and energy.

These and many other situations can make elders feel incredibly alone. According to Hugh O'Connor, CEO of Age Friendly Ireland, over one in three people over 65 who live in retirement communities say they’re lonely. And loneliness is associated with depression, dementia, heart disease, and increased mortality.
There are two types of loneliness, reports a new study conducted by researcher Brian Lawlor. Social loneliness is caused by a lack of social connection, and emotional loneliness is caused by a lack or loss of an attachment figure such as an intimate partner. Both occur when a person feels a mismatch between their actual quality and quantity of social contacts and their desired quality and quantity of relationships.

Lawlor’s study, titled Only the Lonely [PDF], found that loneliness can decrease quickly for older people in care communities when they receive peer visits from volunteers. The study’s volunteers, also older people, made 10 home visits to lonely community dwellers, building rapport and encouraging community dwellers to identify social connections they’d like to make. Within one month, and again at three months, residents reported feeling less lonely. The volunteers also reported a decrease in loneliness.

What else can help? "The Elder Loneliness Epidemic" offers some great tips, including:
  • Listen and observe
  • Develop a strategy to defeat seclusion
  • Let them teach you
  • Bridge the generation gap

The article emphasizes encouraging elders to talk about their hobbies so you can work those interests into meaningful activities. Our Life Story Questionnaire [PDF] is a great tool for gathering info on a person's preferences and helping those passions spark social engagement.

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