AARP has completed a report on the Framework for Isolation in Adults over age 50. The report defines isolation as the experience of diminished social connectedness stemming from a process whereby the impact of risk factors outweighs the impact of existing protective factors. A person’s lack of social connectedness is measured by the quality, type, frequency and emotional satisfaction of social ties. Social isolation can impact health and quality of life, measured by an individual’s physical, social, and psychological health; ability and motivation to access adequate support for themselves; and the quality of the environment and community in which they live.
The report also states that isolation in adults aged 50 and older occurs due to a complex set of circumstances and factors that exist at the individual, social network, community, and societal levels. The primary risk factors associated with isolation include: living alone, mobility or sensory impairment, major life transitions, socioeconomic status (low income, limited resources), being a caregiver for someone with severe impairment, psychological or cognitive vulnerabilities, location (rural, unsafe or inaccessible neighborhood/community), small social network and/or inadequate social support, language (non-English speaking) and membership in a vulnerable group. Isolation or personal seclusion can also be triggered by the change/loss of social network, social role, physical health, mental health and resources.
The National Council on Aging estimated, in a recent study, that 17 percent of all Americans over the age of 65 are isolated because they live alone and face one or more barriers related to geographic location, disability or communication skills.
This time of year has everyone thinking about how we can be better neighbors and friends to those around us and ensure they have somewhere to go or someone to be with during the holidays, but knowing how to help prevent isolation, loneliness and separation from family and community is something we should be concerned about all year long. Isolation is an ongoing issue, not just a seasonal one.
Here are a few things you can do all year long to be a friend to an isolated older adult:
• Get to know your neighbors – This is the first step. Maybe you have an older adult living in your neighborhood that isn’t very active in the community. Introduce yourself, invite them to dinner, have coffee with them. The simplest acts can make a big difference in the life of a person who’s isolated.
• Offer to drive – Not having access to transportation can be a significant factor causing isolation for an older adult. If you can’t personally drive them, offer to help them find an organization that can. A bus pass can be a welcome gift.
• Ask questions – As evidenced in the AARP report, there are many reasons an older adult may be isolated, and it may have nothing to do with lack of transportation. They may have just lost a loved one and are finding it hard to find the motivation to leave the house or maybe they had to move recently and don’t know anyone in town. They may even have been feeling under the weather and haven’t been able to talk to anyone about it. It’s important to ask.
Encourage social activities
Senior centers are great places for older adults to engage with others as well as provide meaning for them with a variety of activities offered from woodworking to cards to yoga and more.
Offer to help – There may be a home project that is limiting an older adult’s mobility. For example, they may have trouble bathing themselves because they find it difficult to stand in the shower for so long. Or, this time of year, they may be limited by the snow on their driveway that they’re unable to shovel on their own. Be a neighbor and offer to shovel and salt a path for them. Programs exists include chore and repair services, and in-home safety assessments.
There are numerous simple ways to help prevent isolation in older adults, many of which require only a few minutes of your time. Become more aware of the older adults in your life and community and begin to engage with them more often. Older adults add so much value to our communities, and deserve appreciation and support. What will you do to help prevent isolation in the lives of the older adults in your community today?
–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, at www.seniorcommunity.org