Social isolation in older adults pose health risks – you can make a difference

Social Isolation in Older AdultsSocial isolation in older adults has led to too many tragic early deaths. Humans are social creatures. Having connections is vital for survival. But age is also a factor. As people grow older, many become isolated and lonelier than ever (especially if they have little family, relationships, friends, or clinical resources and services, to fall back on) and may suffer psychological or physical health problems such as depression and dementia in their later years.

I remember in my teens, a family friend who was in his seventies, lost his wife to cancer. Living alone, already struggling with issues related to his age, his mental and physical health quickly ran downhill.

My dad would drop by his house and the only thing in the cupboards would be dozens of boxes of cereal. What little food was in the refrigerator would be moldy or rotten. Dad would throw it out and put away the groceries he’d brought.

His friend would be mean-spirited and ungrateful but dad would brush it aside, tidy up the house as best he could in the short time he had, and promise to return soon.

But as the couple had outlived their aged friends and had no outside social networks to provide support, dad simply wasn’t enough. Within a few months, his lonely friend was gone.

However, it seems that there are ways to reduce the negative effects of aging combined with social isolation. Research supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) explores ways of reducing loneliness in social isolation and identifying potential risk.

We’ll discuss some of these findings in the following article.

Key Takeaways

  • Older adults who are experiencing difficulties can feel isolated or disconnected. Research shows that social isolation may cause impaired mental performance, lower immune function, and an increased risk of serious illness and depression.
  • Studies in settings among isolated individuals report lack of connection and support associated with prolonged solitude is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes daily.
  • Strong social networks are vital in maintaining physical and mental health. Relationships, friends and family, social services, therapy, and other support, are all interventions to improve quality of life.

Table of Contents

Describe social isolation

Symptoms of social isolation

Why is social isolation a risk for older adults?

How can older adults stop loneliness?


Describe social isolation in older adults

Simply put, social isolation is a lack of social connections and it can often lead to loneliness. Social isolation can result from:

  • an unwillingness to leave home; often prefaced by unreasonable fears, thought distortions caused by dementia; loss of self-worth, or financial worries;
  • a loss of mobility (very common amongst the elderly);
  • depression;
  • caring for a loved one;
  • loss of a loved one;
  • hearing loss, which can lead to feelings of isolation even when surrounded by people;
  • loss of employment or retirement (our job is often the centerpiece of our social outlets); and,
  • health issues.

What are the symptoms of social isolation in those over 60?

People suffering from social isolation often describe solitude as unwanted or unhealthy. Whereas in healthy or at least less lonely individuals, solitude is considered an opportunity for reflection, meditation or focusing intently on a desired goal.

Social isolation can make a person feel lonely or depressed. These individuals are often prone to feeling anxious or lacking self-confidence.

The following are often signs that people are feeling isolated from society:

  • Depression or panic attacks;
  • Aggressive behavior – long-term social isolation was one of the factors in the inappropriate behavior seen after the Covid lockdowns. The same behavior is also demonstrated among troubled teens who feel isolated and alone;
  • Lethargy – many companies that originally allowed employees to work from home have changed their policies after witnessing a loss of work ethic and increase in mental health issues after a few months away from the office;
  • Poor self-care – the appearance factor of self-esteem often degrades as people lose contact with others. Appropriate care is part of a healthy identity, especially among aged populations;
  • Insomnia and sleeplessness – even introverts who find social interaction taxing (I’m one of them), still feel the negative effects of social isolation or loneliness; and,
  • Memory lapse – Studies done on prisoners who were subjected to long-term isolation as a form of punishment were found to suffer from memory lapses, depression, panic attacks, poor self-care, and lethargy.

In studying socially isolated older adults, researchers have found loneliness caused a 40 percent increase in dementia risk for people aged 60 or older.

Why is social isolation a risk for older adults aging in place?

We’re all living longer today; especially those who’ve maintained a healthy living style and could afford good insurance. And with the research funded today on healthy longevity, a lot more of us may be living a lot longer.

But families often disperse geographically, losing touch or having limited interaction due to the pressures of child-rearing, career and other factors.

It’s interesting that researchers have found that loneliness and social isolation follow a U-shaped curve through a lifetime: we tend to suffer a lot of loneliness during our young adult years and then again, when we are aged.  However, the greatest cause of downfall amongst older adults is grief and loss due to the loss of a spouse, friends, and worst of all, outliving your children.

Also, loneliness is more common among people with Alzheimer’s. Accordingly, loneliness can cause cognitive decline, totally unrelated to specific diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Socially isolated aging is a basket full of health risks.

Another threat to the health of elderly adults is malnutrition caused by decreased appetite. Often triggered by a combination of depression and medications, it can cause a person to eat less healthy food or rarely eat at all.

So the risks due to being isolated include:

  • anxiety and depression
  • high blood pressure and heart disease
  • cognitive decline (something I experienced before I turned it around),
  • obesity and even death (as I spoke in the opening about witnessing with a family friend).

How can older adults stop loneliness?

One of the risk factors in addressing this public health issue is that it is often difficult to get older adults suffering from social isolation or loneliness to engage in any of these evidence-based tools.

It will probably require a coordinated effort on the part of family, friends and/or social workers to get socially isolated older adults up and running.

The following are the best quality-of-life tools to increase social connections:

  • social skills training (it may require little more than reminding older adults through friendly and considerate interaction of the social skills they had before lack of human contact caused them to lapse)
  • clinical intervention by a licensed therapist (the Zoom option may be best until some progress is made.)
  • community support group (both libraries and community centers may offer options)
  • church or spiritual connections (sometimes, getting reacquainted with the comfort of ritual can help bring an older person back from  feelings of isolation and loneliness)
  • home care assistance (my next door neighbor, who is my age – 65 – and lives alone, just lost a leg to diabetes. A home care assistant, paid for by his union, drops in an hour a day to help)
  • age-appropriate support and interaction through games, clubs or hobby groups (check online for local opportunities)
  • Making aging-friendly communities by increasing access to transportation and technology can help combat loneliness and social isolation among older people


While the health risks related to social isolation and loneliness can be catastrophic, both mentally and physically, community awareness and volunteers can make a big difference.

Aging and loss of family, friends, and social outlets isn’t the fault of the aged. It’s an unfortunate consequence of outliving your support systems.

And low income amongst the 65 and older population isn’t a crime. Effective interventions and mental health resources are available. We just have to care.

Social isolation and loneliness in older adults doesn’t have to be a mental health social embarrassment on society. It can be an opportunity for growth, community-building, and bringing the resource and wisdom of older adults back into the fold.

Let’s make it happen. What else can we all do to make a difference? Add your thoughts and experiences to the comments…

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