Although the holidays bring thoughts of celebrations and togetherness with friends and family, many seniors face an entirely different type of holiday season: a lonely one. The most recent U.S. Census estimates that about 28% of adults over age 65 live alone; that share jumps to nearly 40% of women between 75 and 84, and 55% of women over 85.
Certainly, not every senior who lives alone experiences loneliness and isolation. But for those who do, loneliness is more than an emotion; it has real implications for physical and mental health.
Research has shown that feelings of isolation are as harmful as a smoking habit of 15 cigarettes per day. Loneliness impacts older adults’ mortality even more than other important risk factors, such as obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.
A previous AARP survey on loneliness showed that over half of people who had been diagnosed with anxiety, depression or another mood disorder also reported being lonely. People who are lonely are also at greater documented risk of cognitive decline.
For seniors who are able to get out and about, the best way to deal with loneliness during the holidays is to fight the instinct to isolate oneself, say healthy aging experts. Instead, make plans to attend holiday concerts or other events, call close friends – or reconnect with old ones – or shop for a few gifts.
It’s also important to be honest with family members and friends about feeling lonely. Information from the AARP Foundation points out that one factor driving isolation is that many seniors are reluctant to speak up and ask for help. In these cases, friends and loved ones can step in to provide reassurance and help to relieve the burden of loneliness, both during the holidays and beyond.
According to the foundation, signs of acute loneliness and social isolation in an older person include an overall lack of interest in activities and withdrawal from others; loss of interest in personal hygiene; poor eating and nutrition; and significant clutter, signs of hoarding or general disrepair in the home.