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“Our communities are healthiest when older adults remain engaged”
– Lisa Marsh Ryerson, President of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)
When we have low social connectedness, we can experience social isolation and feelings of loneliness. Social isolation and loneliness are different but related. We can be alone, but not feel lonely, and we can feel lonely while being surrounded by people.
The goal of Connection in Action is to reduce social isolation amongst older adults by increasing opportunities to build social connections, which can reduce loneliness and improve a sense of belonging.
Social isolation is a low quantity and quality of contact with others. Social isolation can be a choice or it can be an unwanted result of many factors.
Loneliness is a subjective, unwelcome, and painful feeling that is difficult to tolerate. It can happen when we are not satisfied with the quality of our social connections.
It is important to note that loneliness is not a personal failing. Loneliness is experienced by everyone from time to time, regardless of age.
Loneliness may or may not lead to social isolation, and social isolation may or may not lead to loneliness.
Social isolation happens when we have a low number of social contacts and when we do not interact with others enough. Some older adults may choose to have a small number of contacts. For some older adults, being alone may not be a choice.
Types of Loneliness
Temporary or situational loneliness
Loneliness in older adults may be experienced over a short-time as a result of a life transition like retirement, moving, coping with a death, a sudden change or decline in physical health, etc. Situational loneliness may also be experienced annually on a significant date or holiday.
When we have quality social connections, our experiences of loneliness as a result of life transitions are likely to be short-term. This is because having quality social connections helps us feel less alone about stressful situations. We also receive information from social connections. This means that our social contacts may have information and knowledge of resources that can help reduce the impact of the stressful situation.
Without social connections, short-term loneliness can lead to long-term or chronic loneliness.
Long-term or chronic loneliness
Loneliness can be experienced over a long period of time. Chronic loneliness can be the result of unaddressed short- term loneliness. It can also be the result of physical, mental, emotional, medical, social, and environmental barriers. Ongoing loneliness can worsen our self-esteem.
When we don’t connect with others in meaningful ways, it becomes harder for us to build new social connections. But it’s not impossible. Addressing long-term loneliness might require a bit of effort. It may involve a holistic approach that includes working on our social skills, for example.
There can be serious health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Older adults who experience social isolation and loneliness are more likely to be admitted to the emergency room or to long-term care (Source: National Institute on Ageing).
Those who care for older adults may also be an older adult themselves. Caregivers are also at-risk of experiencing social isolation and loneliness as a result of caring for someone with complex needs.
Social isolation and loneliness are associated with higher risks of the following:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weakened immune function
- Cognitive decline
- Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
- Motor decline
- Lack of mobility
- Cardiovascular decline
- Impaired hearing
Signs and Symptoms of Social Isolation and Loneliness
Introducing social connections as protective factors and as early interventions are essential for positive and long-term health and well-being outcomes. It is important to know that anytime is a good time to increase social connections. It is never too late to reach out for support.
Knowing how to recognize the signs of isolation and loneliness in yourself or someone you know is an important step towards limiting the negative impacts. Recognizing the signs may not always be easy. Sometimes signs can be subtle and mistaken for something else, like being an introvert or wanting to maintain strict social distancing measures. Other times signs can be overlooked, like when an older adult has social contacts but is experiencing loneliness.
Signs and symptoms can look different for each person. Here are some key signs and symptoms to look for.
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