Loneliness & Physical Illness: Causes & Prevention
My 97-year-old dad has lived in a very nice assisted/senior-living center apartment for nearly two years. Now, when we drive up to it together, he says, “There’s my home!” But he also says, “This is a lovely place, but I’m very lonely.” He has outlived two wives. He married a third time when he was 86 because, he said, “I don’t like living alone.” His current wife is 9 years younger than Dad and doesn’t want to leave her home to live with him. She comes to visit him for a couple of hours four days a week. We make sure that at least one of his children also is there for a visit every day of the week. We often wonder what else we can do!
The center offers several activities each day, and they are good to remind him to participate, but his dementia has kept him from developing any satisfying friendships. Because he aspirates food and chokes if he tries to talk and eat at the same time, mealtime conversations are difficult. I’ve encouraged my four siblings who live out of town to call or write. Sometimes they do, but often Dad doesn’t answer the phone, and when he does, it’s hard for them to know what to say to him. They wonder if a call or a visit is worthwhile, especially when after an hour or two, he can’t remember it even took place. I try to encourage them by saying that even if he doesn’t remember it later, at least for the time he is on the phone or with a visitor, he is happy. Keeping Dad active and trying to prevent him from feeling lonely takes a lot of effort.
A Health Risk of Epidemic-Proportion
Loneliness is said to be an “invisible epidemic” that affects 60 million Americans. A recent New York Times article states, “Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity.” Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the U. of CA, San Francisco, adds, “The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem. It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.” During 6 years of follow-up, the lonely adults she studied had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities and death.
John T. Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the U. of Chicago and director of the university’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, has been studying loneliness since the 1990s. His research has shown that chronic loneliness can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs. “Loneliness doesn’t just make people feel unhappy, it actually makes them feel unsafe — mentally and physically.” It also affects the production of white blood cells, which can decrease the immune system’s ability to fight infection. An article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Everyday Health explains why you should treat loneliness as a chronic illness. It goes on to say, “On the other hand, people who have strong ties to family and friends are as much as 50 percent less at risk of dying over any given period of time than those with fewer social connections.”
What to Do for Yourself or Your Loved One
If you, a loved one or someone you care for is lonely, here are some suggestions that may help, depending on current health and mobility:
- Don’t text. Use the phone and talk to someone.
- If you leave a message and don’t get a return call, call back.
- Plan a low-key activity with someone, like a walk.
- Practice simple acts of social interaction, like saying “hello” to everyone.
- Make the effort to meet new people.
- Check out the resources at your local senior center.
- Contact a friend with whom you’ve lost touch and meet for lunch.
- Volunteer to help others as much as you can.
- Take up a new hobby that fits your current abilities.
- Adopt a pet, if you have the ability to care for one.
- Provide transportation for a short excursion or just a drive.
If You or Your Loved One Is Homebound
Being social can be difficult if you are homebound. Area agencies on aging, places of worship or providers like Dakota Travel Nurse Home Care may be able to offer home-visitation services, companionship or respite care. Help prevent illness by lessening loneliness. Call DTN Home care today for a personal consultation on how we can help. 701.663.5373