The wild winter weather across much of the country is keeping many people indoors more than they would like, and being stuck inside can be a particular problem for seniors living alone– putting their mental, emotional, and even physical health at risk. Not only is it more difficult for the elderly to leave without risking winter dangers like the cold, falls, and dangerous driving conditions, it’s also harder for visitors to reach them. Winter weather can also have an effect on senior nutrition, if someone is unable to leave the house and shop for food. An even more distressing result of being trapped inside, unable to come or go, can be social isolation and loneliness.
Loneliness Affects Elderly Health and Well-Being
We often think of the elderly as residing in a senior community, with family, or in other shared housing situations, so it may be hard to imagine that loneliness is an issue for seniors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, however, the probability of living alone actually increases with age. For women, the likelihood of living alone is 32 percent for 65- to 74-year-olds, but this increases to 57% for those aged 85 years or more; for men, the corresponding proportions are 13% and 29% . Even for centenarians—seniors who are 100 years of age or older—the numbers are astonishingly high: about a third of centenarians live alone at home.
Isolation in the elderly can lead to some distressing health outcomes, and even increase the risk of death. A 2012 review of the scientific literature, published in The Journal of Primary Prevention, stated that “social isolation has been demonstrated to lead to numerous detrimental health effects in older adults, including increased risk for all-cause mortality, dementia, increase risk for re-hospitalization, and an increased number of falls.”
Recent research reports shows how it effects seniors: at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this month, University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo reported that feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of dying early by 14%. “Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being,” stated UChicago News.
What You Can Do If Your Loved One Is Isolated
According to Cacioppo, the danger isn’t necessarily solitude itself, but a subjective feeling of isolation, of lacking social engagement and face-to-face connections with others. Age-related health issues like vision loss, hearing loss or incontinence can increase this sense of isolation. So what can families and caregivers do to address the issue if we fear our loved ones are isolated? Here’s a list of suggestions for preventing senior loneliness and keeping our loved ones healthy and happy this winter:
1. Address Any Underlying Health Issues
Whether it’s arranging for the delivery of incontinence supplies or making sure your loved one has regular hearing or vision tests, being proactive about seniors’ health can help them feel better on a day-to-day basis. What’s more, it can diminish the social anxiety related to hearing, vision, or continence concerns.
2. Reach Out to Family, Friends, and Neighbors
If the weather makes it impossible for you to check on your senior loved one as much as you’d like, enlist the help of others who may be nearby and more easily able to visit. Can a neighbor knock on the door and check in? Don’t forget to call or email your loved one often to keep those connections strong even when you can’t visit in person.
3. Prevent Senior Malnutrition With Food Delivery
Seniors who live alone may be at greater risk of getting poor nutrition when the weather turns nasty. Consider getting food delivered by an online grocery service, or by an organization such as Meals on Wheels, which can provide not just nutritious food but social contact.
4. Encourage Safe Transportation and Mobility
Encouraging your loved ones to use the adaptive technologies they may need, from hearing aids to walkers, which can help them become more active and socially engaged. When it comes to getting outside the house, though, storms and snow can present a challenge. Give senior relatives rides when you can, or arrange safe transportation for them, whether it’s senior-friendly public transit, an ambulette or paratransit service, or a taxi.
5. Connect Older Loved Ones with Necessary Local Services
You can use the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator website to get in touch with your local Area Agency on Aging. The AAA will know where your loved one can find senior centers, transportation services, and other helpful programs for the elderly. “Some AAAs even have volunteers who call and check in on home bound seniors living alone,” says a recent article by the AARP.
6. Consider Respite Care or Assisted Living
Sometimes our loved one needs more care than we are able to provide, especially in cases where the weather throws a (literal) roadblock. One option in this case is to book your loved into a short-term stay in a facility that offers respite care, so that their day-to-day needs are taken care of for the duration of their stay. However, if a senior requires ongoing help that is beyond your abilities – for instance, if they are cognitively impaired, or their physical care needs are increasing – this could be a sign they are ready for assisted living.