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Loneliness in Seniors: Understanding It’s Impact and Ways to Help

While being alone may be considered a normal part of aging, the sadness and depression that often accompany chronic loneliness most certainly are not. Here are some more insights about loneliness of seniors in Canada and how to prevent the dreading effects that come with it.

  1. Loneliness of seniors in Canada
  2. Causes of loneliness in seniors
  3. 10 Signs of loneliness in seniors
  4. Effects of loneliness in seniors
  5. How to help seniors with loneliness

Loneliness of seniors in Canada

Often overlooked, loneliness is a huge health risk that affects seniors living in Canada today and not a lot is being done about it. Data from The Canadian census shows that 24.6% of seniors aged 65 and above, now live alone with no family or friends. This can be treacherous as according to the Administration of Aging these seniors that are over the age of 65, have an average life expectancy to live for another 20 years on their own. During this time of isolation a lot can happen both mentally and physically, such as being more prone to falls which can lead to serious injuries.

The National Seniors Council of Canada says that social isolation can take place when a senior has both low quantity and quality of contact with others. However, according to NSC, social isolation and loneliness are two different terms even though they are often associated with one another. Social isolation is an objective state where the number of contacts can be counted and loneliness is simply a subjective perception of a lack of interaction and contact with others.

Now that we are more aware of the prominent place that loneliness has on the seniors in Canada, let’s talk about how to know if your loved ones are experiencing loneliness and what you can do today to help.

Causes of loneliness in seniors

There are several factors that lead to loneliness among the elderly. Seniors may get lonely when they face the loss of a partner or when they retire and miss the day-to-day contact with their old colleagues. Another reason could be, when they move to a retirement home and no longer have close contact with their family and relatives. To summarize, some factors that lead to seniors’ loneliness can be:

  • Bereavement
  • Retirement
  • Loss of network of friends and companions
  • A change in living environment
  • Poor physical health (have difficulty listening, talking)
  • Lack of transport
  • Fear of becoming a burden
  • Financial difficulties

Sometimes loneliness can occur without any of the above reasons taking place. Seniors may feel lonely if they have certain medical conditions, such as chronic diseases like cancer or degenerative brain conditions like dementia. Now that we understand that there are various reasons leading to the feeling of loneliness in seniors, it is important to understand these causes in order to help.

10 signs of loneliness in seniors

Sometimes you can tell if your parents or grandparents are lonely if you contemplate the causes—especially if they have just experienced a loss of a friend or family member. However, sometimes the changes could be subtle and hard to notice. Here are 10 signs of loneliness among the elderly that you should pay attention to:

1. Restless sleep.

A Study has pointed out that there’s a link between loneliness and sleep efficiency: the lonelier a person feels, the more fragmented their sleep becomes. If your parents or grandparents complain about not sleeping well enough or being more tired than usual, try talking to them more as they can suffer from loneliness.

2. Increased buying habits.

A 2013 research from the Journal of Consumer Research pointed out a link between loneliness and an increase in spending habits. This is when lonely people tend to look for something to do, and displace this feeling through shopping, to compensate for the lack of social connections. Talk to parents and grandparents if you see them buying more than usual—they may not say it out loud, but they could be very lonely.

3. Lack of appetite.

Seniors may experience a loss of appetite if they are lonely. Although this change in appetite could be normal as a part of the ageing process, it’s still worth paying attention to when accompanied by other signs of loneliness.

4. Mentions of relatives or friends that seniors haven’t seen in a long time.

Although this could be a sign of seniors just missing their friends or relatives, it could be regarded as a sign of loneliness too. The number of times seniors mentioning their friends or relatives should also be kept in mind. Key phrases to pay attention for are “I miss them”, “How are they doing”, and they “never visit anymore”.5. Change in frequency of phone calls.

Phone behaviour has been proven to be in close relation with loneliness. Seniors may need to reach out and talk to someone more frequently, as an attempt to form new connections and to deal with their loneliness. On the other side a decrease in the frequency of phone calls can also be a sign of loneliness. This is when lonely seniors grow adapted to their situation—they’ve adjusted their expectation for support and no longer look to form new connections. Make sure you pay attention to your loved ones and their phone patterns as any changes in the pattern could be signs of loneliness.

6. Increased amount of time spent at home (without company)

Staying at home should not be considered a sign of loneliness on its own, but you should be taken more seriously if your loved ones are spending an increasing amount of time at home without the company of friends and family. This is noticeable if they increasingly make excuses to stay at home instead of attending family events or spending time with any friends and family in general.

7. Verbal cues

Seniors may mention that they’re feeling lonely to you—sometimes they may actually say it out loud that they’re lonely. Majority of the time you may need to look for subtle clues, such as when your loved ones tell you that they don’t really have anyone to talk to or they want to see friends more often.

8. Changes in behaviour: 

Loneliness can make seniors become withdrawn and stop interacting with others, or it can make them crave the human touch and want extra physical contact. If either of these is considered a change in your loved ones’ normal behaviour, take it as a warning that they could be experiencing loneliness.

9. Imaginary health issues

Your loved ones may complain about their imaginary illnesses or make up stories about their health condition to you as a way to get more attention. If you notice that they are being more and more untruthful, make sure you DON’T confront them to tell you the truth. Rather, understand their situation and make an effort to spend extra time with them if you see this happening.

10. Befriending / Interacting with suspicious people

When seniors get lonely, they may start looking for any connection they can. Sometimes these connections turn out to be suspicious or dishonest people, trying to scam seniors. As the Internet has become widespread, older people may turn to social media channels or websites to look for friends, and they may face the risk of being scammed online. If you’ve found out that your loved ones are spending a lot of time with someone you find untrustworthy, try to discuss it with them and understand why there are in this situation. If they are involved in a scam, explain to them in a calm manner as they may be emotionally attached to the situation and need some time to realize the position that they are in.

Effects of Loneliness in seniors

The repercussions of chronic loneliness are truly depressing. According to Aging Care, lonely seniors are 59% more likely to deteriorate both physically and mentally than their more social counterparts. Some of the other negative health effects that loneliness can cause to seniors include:

1. Increased Risk of Cognitive Decline and Dementia

Multiple studies have proven that loneliness is a risk factor for and may contribute to the deterioration in cognitive performance and the onset of dementia. This is a huge risk for seniors as these can lead to other conditions and can be life threatening if they experience a combination of strains on the mental state.

2. Increased Risk of Depression

Loneliness is often associated with negative feelings such as sadness, pain, or low self-worth. These feelings and many more may contribute to the onset of mental issues among seniors such as depression. Family members and friends should try their best to help by turning these negative feelings into positive feelings in order to combat their loneliness.

3. Increased Risk of Mortality

study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found both social isolation and loneliness to be associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. This could be because lonely seniors are not as prompted to seek medical help if their health condition gets worse. Sometimes it’s not that healthcare staff, caregivers and family members don’t see what’s going on; oftentimes it’s just that lonely or depressed seniors aren’t willing to ask for help. In fact, Mood Disorders Canada suggests that 90% of those afflicted with chronic loneliness don’t seek treatment, which indicates that thousands of seniors living in Canada are suffering in silence — and solitude.

How to Help Seniors with Loneliness

There are several ways to help seniors with loneliness. Some examples can be to encourage seniors to embrace a positive body image, which can be done through simple compliments and positive comments. It is also encouraged for seniors to dine with other people as a way to increase social connection, and many more.

It’s no surprise that increased social interaction and support would help remedy the feelings of loneliness that are being felt by so many seniors across Canada, however this isn’t a quick fix. After all, joining a yoga class or meeting with friends is tough to do when your mobility is compromised, and even tougher when the number of friends you have start to decline.

What makes matters worse is that often times, the children of older adults living alone or in a nursing home are still working, or are busy raising their own family, and struggle to find the time to plan daily or even weekly visits.

So, as someone responsible for a lonely senior, what can you do? A start could be to refer to informative websites like National Institute of Mental Health or HelpGuide.org. These resources can show you extra signs to look out for and what you can do today to help.

Most of the help that you can get for your loved ones depend on the severity of their loneliness and depression which is why it is crucial to understand the situation they are in by looking at the signs mentioned above.

You can also seek help from organizations like Closing the Gap Healthcare. If you’re looking to fill in the hours between visits, you might want to explore the Keeping Connected  program. Keeping Connected offer scheduled phone calls for seniors, by an experienced and professional team of phone companions – at no cost!

In the end it is important to remember that each situation is different and loneliness is an issue that is often overlooked. Take some time out of your day today and look for the signs mentioned above as you never know what your loved ones can be going through.

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