It's common for seniors to experience a sense of loneliness whether living at home or in a senior living community. As social beings, we all want and need mental stimulation and social interaction with others to thrive. Some require more than others.
But the symptoms of loneliness aren’t always easy to identify. If you suspect or wonder if your loved one is feeling lonely, we’ve listed the most common signs to look for, as well as some ideas on how to turn that loneliness into purpose and connectedness.
How Common is Loneliness in Seniors?
It may be surprising these days with all the ways we have to connect, but loneliness in seniors is very, very common. According to the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, loneliness affects 25% to 60% of older Americans. That translates to millions of people who are not only feeling lonely, but may suffer health risks as a result.
Senior caregivers agree. “Loneliness is an epidemic in this country. It’s significant and growing,” explains Hutch, Director of Spirituality at The Goodman Group. “We have communities where 50% of the people who come to live here are already in a state of loneliness.”
Realizing how common loneliness is can be your first step in watching for its often telltale signs.
Common Signs of Loneliness
Everyone is different, so it’s only natural that loneliness will show up in different ways depending on personality, living circumstances, and any number of other factors. Plus, what signals loneliness in one person may simply be privacy or natural introversion in another. At the same time, there are signs that in many, if not most cases, can indicate a sense of loneliness or feelings that can lead to loneliness — even depression — over time. These are the most common to watch for:
- Disengaging from community life. This is especially true if it seems to come on suddenly or for someone who was normally very engaged in the past. Perhaps your loved one used to be active in community or church events but now has no interest in leaving the house.
- Disengaging from family and friends. Similar to disengaging from the larger community, this is sometimes easier to spot because it’s closer to home. If your loved one used to relish family visits and outings with his buddies but starts to find excuses to stay in or not participate in events, this is something to watch. If it becomes habitual, it can signal loneliness or even a physical health issue.
- Your loved one just “isn’t themselves.” Signs of loneliness can sometimes be vague or come across as your loved one just not acting in their normal ways. Don’t ignore those feelings! They can signal a problem in the making and should be addressed.
- A decline in health. Especially if sudden and not due to clear causes, a decline in health can signal loneliness. More and more researchers are connecting the dots between health and loneliness. So, if your loved one seems to be losing energy, not sleeping well, not eating well, showing signs of cognitive decline, or is generally listless, it’s time to address the changes — both medically and emotionally.
Recognizing the signs of loneliness is one thing. But how do you address what can be a very sensitive issue? Here are some ideas.
How to Overcome Feelings of Loneliness
While common, loneliness does not have to be inevitable for seniors. There are simple and enjoyable ways to help your loved ones stay engaged with life, their friends, and family.
- Start by listening. Just engaging your loved one in a conversation about their day can be a great start. That’s exactly what the professionals do. “It starts with listening," Hutch says. "Our spiritual directors listen. They’re patient and just allow seniors to express themselves.” If you find your loved one is reluctant, a good conversational prompt is “Tell me more about that.” It leaves the conversation open to whatever they’d like to express.
- Invite them out. Sometimes it’s a matter of having someone to go out with. Choose events you know your loved one enjoys. Let them know ahead of time what your plans are. Give them a few days to prepare or anticipate the outing. It can be helpful. Spur-of-the-moment invitations can be harder for seniors to engage in.
- Help them stay engaged with hobbies or special interests. Maybe it’s more difficult for your loved one to go to a museum for an afternoon, but what about watching a DVD tour of the Louvre together? Or maybe your loved one enjoys playing cards but a recent surgery has him skipping his weekly game. Can you bring the game to him? These may seem like small efforts, but keeping your loved one engaged with what they already love can have long-term rewards.
Any of these efforts will help engage your loved one’s spirit, which according to Hutch, is all about purpose and meaning in life. To learn more about how spiritual directors at The Goodman Group managed communities engage residents, watch this video.