Seniors and Loneliness
Living in community can save lives
Do you know any seniors who are lonely? Loneliness may be much worse for them than you think. According to a survey last year by the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP), seniors who are lonelier or have less social contact are more likely to report lower levels of general health. The authors of the survey say, "loneliness impacts people’s description of their overall health more than twice as much as being older." Even more might be at stake, as concluded by a 2014 study from the University of Chicago. "Extreme loneliness can increase an older person's chance of premature death by 14 percent," according to John Cacioppo, who led the study.
Loneliness impacts people’s description of their overall health more than twice as much as being older.
Many older people profess a strong belief in independence and self-reliance. But how healthy is it, really, to want to age in your own home, for example, if that means aging alone? In “Seniors Speak Out About Loneliness,” the writers summarize: “Loneliness is partly about the number of friends or people in your life, but it is also about whether or not you feel connected to people.”1
How to help a friend suffering from loneliness
If you know a senior suffering from loneliness, there are a number of things you can do to help them feel more connected. Vida Proctor has a lot of experience with seniors in her role as General Manager of Harbour Hill Retirement Community in Goderich. She suggests a number of things that people can do to reach out to those suffering from loneliness. These include:
- Performing random acts of kindness, including calling or visiting them
- Offering to drive them to appointments, or otherwise helping them stay active
- Encouraging them to remain active by telling them about activities in their community
The CARP survey also noted that those who lived near parks (providing them a simple way of getting out and seeing people, getting out into nature, and just “getting some fresh air”) were much less likely to report feelings of loneliness. So were those who were married, of course. Other factors that helped beat loneliness were proximity to public services or to ‘high-quality’ transit.
Proctor also offers substantial tips to help seniors combat loneliness:
- Join a local seniors’ centre where there are planned lunches, games and socialization
- Invite people over. Give them a reason to come over, such as hosting a book club
- Keep a pet
- Take a class or take up a group hobby
Natalie Tommy of Nautical Lands Group says that these are certainly all great ways for seniors to dispel loneliness. “However, sometimes we find, seniors want more social, and they can’t seem to get motivated to change their routines. This is when a retirement residence makes a lot of sense.”
Health benefits of living in community
What people say about life in a retirement communities belies the fact that community living, by its nature, helps defeat loneliness, and this has great health benefits. It may go beyond just the care, the better food, the healthy environment and other typical aspects of a retirement home. Take, for example, Yvonne’s* comments about the changes in her mother's life after she moved into a retirement home. One of the big difference-makers for her mom was the friends she made. Indeed, her mom thought they were “better, nicer friends than she’s ever had.” Perhaps the best thing about them is that “they're all right there, just outside the door of her suite.” Her mom especially “appreciates that she could never have that anywhere other than in a retirement home."
All my friends are right here, just outside the door"
In retirement communities, there are often so many activities that people tend to forego time alone altogether. “Folks here spend a lot of time outside of their suites. They just end up spending a lot of time with their neighbours and doing things they love to do,” says Chelsea Ramsay, community relations at V!VA Barrhaven in Ottawa.
Irene, from a retirement community in Etobicoke, says, “My advice is go and join a lot of activities. Make a friend you can talk to." At the community she moved into, she "made good friends right off the bat, and they’re still my friends,” she says.
The improved nutrition in retirement homes is a great benefit of living in community. But people also eat better when they have other people to sit with. Ted Fenwick of V!VA Barrhaven tells it like it is: "Meals are one of the big deals here… You come into the dining room. You find someone to sit with and everybody's very congenial."
Yvonne also raves about the blessing obvious in seeing her mom switch from lonely meals at home to eating with a group of friends. When her mom lived alone, she "used to spend an hour every day just making supper — planning the meal, buying the food, making it, cleaning up — all of that all by herself." Her mom now says, "I eat differently every day, and I eat with different people every day." Since moving into a retirement home, her mom has put on weight. "She'd been underweight when she was living alone but now she is doing much better."
Echoing many of the sentiments above, Joyce Kinloch of Prince of Peace in Calgary says, "It is wonderful to be able to socialize and participate in all the activities. One just needs to open the suite door and someone is there and smiles at you... Everyone is so friendly and helpful and the meals are fantastic. "
Loneliness has more adverse effects beyond poor physical health. Another 2014 study, from Holland, showed that feelings of loneliness are in fact a potential predictor for the development of dementia. The study, conducted over three years, followed more than 2,000 participants aged 65 to 86. At the outset of the study, none of the participants had signs of dementia. However, those who reported feelings of loneliness had a 64 percent greater risk of developing dementia, as reported in the study's results. Read more about the Dutch study here.
Clearly, there might be hidden value in moving into a retirement home, beyond just the care. We are social beings, of course. Sociobiology theorists like E.O. Wilson argue that we have a fundamental need for a tribe. Living together, eating together… are these essential needs that all of us – not just lonely seniors – are, in fact, missing out on? The exuberance that many seniors have for their retirement home, for the life that they have there, is often remarkable. Living together and eating together seems to bring out new joy in everyday living and by irrevocably beating loneliness communal living may have health benefits even retirement communities themselves underestimate.
Notes and sources
1“Seniors Speak Out About”, produced by Seeking Solutions: Canadian Community Action on Seniors and Alcohol Issues, a national project funded by Health Canada and the National Population Health Fund. © 2004. See www.agingincanada.ca.
Proctor, Vida. "Loneliness: A new social epidemic?" Parkinson's Update. Winter/Spring 2018. no 67