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Growing Older Can Be a Lonely Trip

Here are some ways to help

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Growing Older Can Be a Lonely Trip

Lana Adams never really experienced loneliness until she hit her seventies; for 68-year-old Uli Novak, it was when he retired about three years ago. “I suddenly had all these empty days to fill,” Novak recalls. “I missed the daily banter with colleagues—and feeling needed and productive.” Adams’ and Novak’s stories are all too common. In fact, 43 percent of adults over age 60 say they feel lonely, and about one in four people over 65 are considered socially isolated. Although having fewer social connections as one ages contributes to loneliness, it doesn’t paint the whole picture. Things including loss of touch and intimacy, illness or disability, and bereavement of loved ones can all play a role. Pervasive ageist attitudes also contribute, as many seniors feel pushed to the periphery of society. And existential questions—such as “how is my life important?”—can also crop up. “I want this chapter of my life to be about more than just keeping busy,” says 73-year-old Barbara Hylton, who knows she’s not alone in this sentiment. Far too often society brushes aside loneliness and social isolation as inevitable parts of aging. In reality, they are perilous issues, thought to increase one’s risk of things such as dementia, depression, and cardiovascular disease. On the flip side, older individuals who have more social support have greater resilience in response to life stressors and illness. Scholars in the gerontology field agree that helping older adults stay meaningfully engaged with their communities is invaluable—not only to seniors themselves, but also to society at large. Although we tend to take a pretty bleak view on aging, focusing on things such as disease and decline, elders make immense contributions to society in regard to their skills, experiences, time, and wisdom. There are no quick fixes to eradicate loneliness and isolation, and addressing these issues needs to occur at a widespread, systemic level. At the same time, smaller-scale, meaningful solutions to prevent and treat loneliness do exist.

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The human-animal connection

Adams, who’s 72 and lives on her own, never thought she’d get a cat until she adopted Hunter a year ago. Now, she doesn’t know what she’d do without him. “He brings me so much joy and makes me laugh every day,” she says.

Studies suggest that the human-animal bond is a powerful one; it can decrease things such as blood pressure and stress and protect against cognitive decline in older adults. Pet owners—especially dog parents—are also more likely to be active outdoors, getting an additional physical and psychological boost.

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The power of a positive mindset

Adams wants to age with optimism—something that she believes will contribute to her physical and psychological health. Research supports her hypothesis, suggesting that optimistic seniors are happier and have a lower risk of mortality.

One study found that keeping a daily list of three positive events decreased stress in adults aged 60 and over. Adams herself has been keeping a daily gratitude journal. “Every morning, I try to think of something to be grateful for, even if it’s just tiny,” she says.

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Intergenerational connections

We tend to divide up communities by age: kids in schools, older individuals in retirement homes. However, close contact across generations creates valuable connections and reciprocal benefits.

“I don’t want to just be around people my own age,” Hylton says. “I like seeing the new moms with their babies at the playground.” She adds that the energy of her teenage grandkids “keeps her young.”

Certain initiatives are beginning to emphasize the benefits of intergenerational connections. Co-housing communities are becoming increasingly popular, placing young families near older adults who can act as surrogate grandparents, or facilitating a student to rent a room in an older adult’s home.

Research shows that when kids get regular care and attention from older adults, they have fewer emotional and behavioural problems. Older individuals also reap the benefits; studies show that regularly involved grandparents experience decreased risk of depression, cognitive decline, and mortality.

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Building a support network

Having more hobbies and increased contact with friends and family reduces loneliness across age, gender, and other lifestyle factors. Combining social interaction with physical activity may be especially effective. Research conducted at the University of British Columbia found that a group exercise program significantly reduced loneliness in people aged 60 and older.

Of course, socializing can be taxing if one is suffering from illness or disability, which can severely limit daily activities. Virtual alternatives—such as online support groups or messaging programs—can combat some of the impacts of loneliness for those with limitations.

Prioritizing your most important connections and activities can also be helpful. At this point in her life, Adams says that friendship is about quality—not quantity. “I want to walk away from each visit feeling like it was worth it,” she says.

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Giving back

When Hylton started volunteering with a seniors’ support program a couple years ago, it gave her a sense of purpose. “I like connecting with people older than I am, playing cards together or helping them out, and just sharing our stories,” she says.

The health benefits of volunteerism are well documented, including its positive impact on longevity. In 2018, Canadian baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1965) and matures (born between 1918 to 1945) contributed more than 1.5 billion volunteer hours. Although they had a lower volunteer rate than younger age groups, they contributed, on average, more hours per year. [END]

Know your loneliness triggers

Adams says she often feels loneliest in the afternoon; for Hylton, it’s during the wintertime. For other seniors, it could be the anniversary of the death of a loved one or during the holidays. Women are typically more likely to report feeling lonely than men (although women may also be more socialized to express their emotions), and other risk factors include recent retirement, new sensory impairment (such as hearing loss), worsening health, or living alone.

Light therapy can boost mood

Light therapy, which involves sitting next to a special light box for 30 minutes each morning, shows promise in helping elderly individuals struggling with depression—which often goes hand-in-hand with loneliness. Promisingly, when symptoms of depression improve, people may be more likely to connect with people and activities that are important to them, in turn alleviating feelings of loneliness.

The power of reminiscence

In the 1960s, psychiatrist Dr. Robert Butler hypothesized that reminiscing about past life events can be therapeutic for older adults. This theory became the foundation of life review—an intervention that can increase confidence, self-esteem, and quality of life among older individuals.

How it works 

Life review involves looking back on certain time periods (such as childhood, adolescence, or parenthood) or themes (such as major milestones, values, or experiences in aging), and exploring what they mean to you.

It can be done with a therapist or by asking a loved one (such as a grandchild) to interview you. A list of life interview questions can be downloaded from the Legacy Project website at legacyproject.org/guides/lifeintquestions.pdf.

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