Depression has long been thought of as being a normal part of aging; however, researchers have debunked that myth. According to research, loneliness is one of the three main factors involved in the development of depression. Depression should not be expected as normal and neither should loneliness. Loneliness is also known to cause other adverse physical health effects. Some loneliness is to be expected as we age, but there are ways to help the older person in your life adjust to the changes that senior citizenship brings.
Where loneliness comes from
Researchers have identified the two methods by which loneliness develops and even thrives as we age. First are the external factors. Those are things such as loss of companionship and minimal social interaction brought about by diminished health and mobility. Second are the internal factors which are attributed to dissatisfaction in family relationships, from conflict or just living too far away. Even personality types come into play when it comes to how older people handle being lonely. Many of these factors are simply unavoidable, particularly the departures of others and the personalities people are born with. Some people will see the glass as half empty until the end.
Researchers dug deeper into the effect of loneliness on well being. Loneliness can actually be considered a cause of death for some people. It has been witnessed firsthand when spouses pass away within six months of each other; a condition known as Broken Heart Syndrome. Yet loneliness can also cause other symptoms that diminish quality of life and increase health issues.
Loneliness weakens the immune system
Loneliness doesn’t just cause a fatal dose of depression. It has been linked to a number of health complications such as:
- High blood pressure
- Impaired cognitive ability
- Diminished immune system responses
Older people who are lonely have a higher chance of becoming sick more often, experience greater memory problems, and have trouble sleeping. All of these things can snowball quickly. They are all risk factors for falling and a diminished will to live.
How does a caregiver help a senior overcome loneliness, or at the very least, learn to manage it?
Improved sociability decreases loneliness
Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale and Sociability Scale by Eysenck, 55 elderly people ages 60 to 80 years old, were asked to participate in a study on social interaction and loneliness. They were asked to rate their levels of loneliness and how much social interaction they had.
According to the results published in India’s Industrial Psychiatry Journal, the conclusion was supported that older adults are affected by their levels of social activity and the state of their moods. It didn’t matter if they were male or female; both sexes experienced feelings of loneliness and depression for the same reasons. Those who were living with children and had regular exposure to grandchildren had lower rates of loneliness, or reported that they felt lonely for shorter periods of time. The less time they spent alone, the less lonely they were.
One group out of New Hampshire began a program called Veggie Cares. They deliver fresh food from their gardens to the elderly in their communities. Yet instead of just dropping the veggies off, they stay and offer companionship as well. They base their program on a study conducted by the National Academy of Sciences that found a large portion of seniors who reported loneliness also experienced physical changes in their gene expression. Immune system genes that fight off viral infections were depressed, and genes responsible for inflammation were flipped on.
Getting older comes with a new set of challenges. Those who have a strong support system with a reliable social network adjust better to the unavoidable factors of loneliness with aging. Closer proximity to family helps to alleviate the worst of loneliness symptoms. Attending Wednesday night church meals and service, or a Friday night bingo club can make the difference between fleeting loneliness and debilitating depression.
If you care for a senior, most likely they need more social interaction. It truly means the difference between life and death.
Singh, Arcana, and Misra, Nishi. (2009). Loneliness, Depression, and Sociability in Old Age Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 18(1): 51-55. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3016701/. Last Visited March 14, 2016.
Luanaigh, C.O., and Lawlor, B. A. (Dec. 23, 2008). Loneliness and the Health of Older People. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 23(12): 1213-21. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18537197. Last Visited March 14, 2016.
The Atlantic 23(14). (December 6, 2015). How Loneliness Wears on the Body Available at https://curotrak.com/eldercare-caregiver-community/parents-care-blog/item/2657-how-loneliness-wears-on-the-body-the-atlantic. Last Visited March 14, 2016.