Solitude is pleasant. Loneliness is not. (Anna Neagle)

What would you guess is more damaging to a person’s mental and physical health: being obese, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or feeling lonely? The surprising answer to that question is loneliness. Recent studies show that people who are lonely and isolated are more likely to suffer from depression, dementia, heart disease, immune system problems, and cancer. Lonely people may even be at greater risk for an early death. Among American men, the suicide rate is highest for those age 65 and older.[1]

Loneliness is a particularly serious problem for seniors for many reasons. Losses such as the death of a spouse, partner, or close friends can be difficult to manage. Age-related changes such as poor vision and hearing and limited mobility can also get in the way of meaningful social interactions. The unfortunate result, a lack of strong social ties, paves the way for loneliness.

This is true even for older adults who have caregivers. Often family members who pitch in to help an aging relative are also working, have other family responsibilities, and limited time and energy.

Preventing loneliness among the elderly is a challenge. Those living in poverty are more likely to suffer from loneliness than people with higher incomes, who may have the means to live in high-quality assisted living or retirement communities that offer activities and opportunities for socializing.

Tips for family members to help aging loved ones avoid isolation include the following:

  • Address the physical issues that may present barriers to socializing, such as hearing and vision problems and incontinence. The right treatments for these issues can vastly improve the person’s quality of life.
  • Explore user-friendly technologies that can help a senior stay in touch with friends and family, such as Skype and Facetime.
  • Encourage participation in hobbies, activities and groups at senior centers, religious services if the person is religious, and volunteer work. Having a sense of purpose is important for emotional health.
  • Investigate transportation options if the senior can no longer drive.
  • Consider paid or volunteer companion care.

In addition to strong social connections, nutritious foods, exercise, and adequate sleep help seniors at any stage in life to maintain emotional and physical well-being.