By Deb Taylor
Think about the most meaningful relationships in your life. What do they add to your experiences? How do they embolden your sense of purpose? The idea of having those relationships slowly fade or be taken away is heart-breaking, but nonetheless a reality for millions of older Americans, who find themselves feeling isolated and alone on a daily basis.
Loneliness is a slippery slope for older adults and for people with disabilities. Changes in life as they age may begin to build upon one another and leave them feeling alone and forgotten about; like they don’t belong. The realities of aging and disability may mean they are despondent from the loss of a spouse or friend. Or that they may be alienated as a result of a chronic health condition, limited mobility, failing memory or hearing loss. A fear of falling or of driving can keep people confined to their homes. These physical limitations can greatly inflame feelings of isolation. Reported loneliness numbers are even greater in the aging LBGTQ population. No matter the cause, millions of older adults find themselves socially isolated, leading them to feel pushed aside and rejected.
One such term to describe this phenomenon is an “elder orphan.” That may sound like a grim label and invoke extreme imagery, but when we really take a closer look at these situations, it really isn’t an exaggeration. These are older adults with no spouse, either no close relatives or no contact with family, and no significant connections to their communities, leading them to feel they don’t belong anywhere.
Meaning comes from connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. A large part of the way we construct our sense of identity is our relation to other people; what we share of ourselves with others, how we interact with others, our shared experiences with them. The consequences of weakening or taking away these relations can be devastating not just emotionally, but also physically.
A University of California, San Francisco study found that participants 60 years old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk of death. Isolated survey respondents also had a 59% greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts.
Studies like these suggest it’s not enough to simply be physically healthy-to have your bodily functions working properly-you need to foster meaningful relationships that will ultimately give you a sense of belonging and purpose. We all need a “why” to get us through the good and bad. For most people, the largest part of that “why” is the people in our lives who matter to us.
So how can we combat loneliness? It starts with the recognition that we all are susceptible to social isolation and loneliness as our lives inevitably change. It starts with a conversation.
The key to addressing loneliness is listening closely, observing vigilantly. We have to encourage one another to share what we’re thinking and feeling. There’s a stigma of loneliness being seen as weakness. As Americans, we have deeply embedded values of individualism and self-reliance, especially in older generations. This can sometimes mean hesitating to reach out for help. But we need to start addressing social isolation and loneliness the way we would a heart problem or any other health risk, because it is one.
Only then can a plan can be developed to help each other to better connect—from finding social groups at senior centers to using online resources of support. At all ages, we need to create and maintain meaningful ties to one another as we grow older. To truly make the physical spaces we reside in impactful communities, we need to find ways to emotionally invest in the places we live; through participation in community outings to simply getting to know your neighbor. After all, no one deserves to feel like they don’t belong anywhere.
Deb Taylor is the CEO of Senior Community Services and its Reimagine Aging Institute, a nonprofit that helps older adults and caregivers navigate aging to maintain independence and quality of life. We provide a wide array of programs — www. seniorcommunity.org