You Are Not Alone
As Baby Boomers Age, Efforts to Keep Seniors Connected Are Growing
Loneliness does not discriminate by age, but it can certainly be problematic in your senior years. It's enough of an issue in the U.S. that it has been labeled an epidemic. A 2018 survey by the AARP Foundation found one in three Americans age 45 and older reported feeling lonely.
That is significant, AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson told AARP last fall, especially as it relates to social isolation factors that can have real consequences for people’s health. "Studies show that isolation and loneliness are as bad for health as obesity or smoking," she said.
The problem is growing with the "silver tsunami," the aging of the baby boomers. By 2030, nearly 20 percent of the nation, or 70 million people, will be 65 or older.
The issue is not so much being alone as feeling lonely, which is often a result of social isolation. And seniors are at increased risk due to retirement or loss of loved ones through death or moves (kids and grandkids living out of state, for example). Health changes and chronic conditions also impact mobility, ability to drive, or participation in activities that once brought joy, purpose and connection.
Fortunately, there are a lot of ways to combat the problem. Here are a few:
Simply participating in artistic activities — from art activities and singing to dancing and storytelling — fosters psychological, physical and emotional health in older adults, according to the National Center for Creative Aging. There are abundant creativity and arts programs for seniors throughout the country. One example is Arizona-based ArtMobile, founded in 2015 by artist Lisa Swanson to provide art programs to seniors both individually and in groups. More information can be found at the National Center for Creative Aging.
Lisa Swanson, a professional artist with a master’s degree in Arts in Medicine, says studies show that taking art classes boosts seniors’ mental and physical well-being. Read Transcript
We all know exercise keeps you fit, but research shows it also benefits seniors by boosting energy, positive body image and self-esteem, all of which encourage a desire to be more social. Even activity from household chores can benefit brain function and mood and reduce depression, according the National Institutes of Health. A study cited by the NIH found exercise stimulated the brain’s ability to maintain old network connections and make new ones that are vital to cognitive health. Depending on your ability, federal guidelines recommend all adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week. Be sure to talk to your doctor before you begin. Learn more about the NIH’s exercise and physical activity campaign for older adults.
Stuck at home?
A major cause of isolation in seniors is lack of transportation. According to AARP, one in five seniors 65 or older do not drive for health or economic reasons. Public transportation is not always affordable or available. This makes it tough not only to get to doctor appointments but to have a social life.
Some options include tapping family, friends or even neighbors for help. Many people are happy to help if asked. You can offer to pay them or do something in return, but the key is to reach out. You can also look to church groups, senior centers and local Area Agencies on Aging for resources such as free or low-cost ride services.
There are also grassroots solutions cropping up across the country. Little Brothers – Friends of the Elderly serves isolated and underserved seniors through several chapters in the U.S. with a goal of offering companionship and promoting a sense of belonging.
Hobbies and sports are a great way to engage with others while working on your personal growth. But you have to keep it up.
- Take a dance class or join a golf league
- Look for events at your local library, including book clubs and computer classes
- Start or join a movie night, restaurant group or game night, and tell people to invite others
- Check out what your local senior or community center offers, from lecture series to art classes
The Village Movement
The Village to Village Network is a grassroots organization where volunteers watch out for each other like people used to do when families and neighbors lived in tighter communities.
The movement started nearly 20 years ago in Boston. Today there are 350 Villages, established and in development, throughout the U.S., according to National Director Barbara Sullivan. The Village to Village Network helps communities start and manage their own Villages. They are in urban centers and rural communities, ranging from 14 square blocks to 14 square miles, Sullivan says. Villages make it possible for seniors to age in place by connecting them with volunteers who provide transportation, social visits, and home maintenance and repair.
The volunteers are also members of the Village. Members typically pay a few hundred dollars a year in dues to support activities and a small staff, and have their own governing boards.
One of the more popular programs for isolated seniors is "Rise and Shine" - morning phone call check-ins that let people know they are valued and have someone to talk to if they want. "It makes people’s day," Sullivan says.
Many organizations need volunteers. And helping others can take the focus off your issues. If you don’t know where to start, look to your interests. Options are nearly endless, from helping at a soup kitchen to being a docent at a museum. Check your senior center for resources or go directly to an organization you like to see what you can do. Another source: Senior Corps, a national volunteer network for people 55 and over who serve communities through such programs as mentoring students, assisting the elderly and being foster grandparents. One program, RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program), lets you put your skills to work while building new ones, from teaching English to immigrants to building homes.
Purpose through pets
There is purpose caring for another living thing. Pets offer companionship and unconditional love. They don’t judge or criticize. Researchers at the University of Michigan found in a recent national poll of people age 50 to 80 that pets — from pups to parakeets — help older adults cope with mental and physical health issues. About three-fourths of those who had pets said their pets reduced their stress and gave them a sense of purpose. Even people in fair to poor health said pets help them cope with physical and emotional symptoms and even helped take their mind off pain.
If a pet is too much to manage, consider a simple flower box or houseplant. It will need your love and care to thrive.
Attend to your grief
If part of your loneliness is due to the loss of a loved one, a support group can help you through the grief process. It’s important to connect with others going through similar losses, especially in a structured group led by a spiritual or educated grief advisor. Local hospices often have regular grief support meetings that are open to the public. Funeral homes are also good sources for grief support groups. GriefShare, a network of grief recovery support groups around the country led by trained experts, has a support group locator.
Social networks like Facebook help people stay in touch with family and friends or connect with special interest groups. Even sharing a health condition with like-minded people can be empowering. PatientsLikeMe connects people with certain medical conditions to provide support and resources to each other.
You can also find others all over the world who share your interests — whether that's autos or pets or travel. There are even online groups for seniors looking for support if they feel lonely. Elder Orphans, for example, has a Facebook group for people who don’t have children or a spouse to lean on for their own care as they age. If you are not digitally savvy, ask a friend or family member to show you the ropes, or take a class at your senior center or library.
Lonliness/Senior Isolation Assessment
The AARP Foundation, which is AARP's charitable affiliate, has an online isolation risk assessment — 12 yes or no questions — that individuals can take either for themselves or for a loved one to see if they’re at risk for social isolation. Based on the result (low, moderate or high risk for social isolation) and the user’s ZIP code, the assessment directs users to a host of local resources that can help with the specific issues identified in the assessment.
Getting older certainly presents challenges — it always has. But social interaction — with the help of family, friends, or groups and organizations like those mentioned above — can turn those challenges to opportunities for fulfillment and well-being.
Find resources in your area
A great resource for seniors is the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. Users can enter their city and state to get an extensive list of resources for seniors in their area, including State Agencies on Aging, transportation services, Meals on Wheels, home care programs, wellness programs, and Medicare and Medicaid guidance.Find Local Resources
Physical Health Can Affect Mental Health. These Medicare Benefits Can Help.
Mental health is directly affected by our physical and emotional well-being, especially in the senior years. Here are several Medicare benefits you may not be aware of that can help seniors maintain good mental health by staying physically healthy.*
* Services listed above are based on Original Medicare and your doctor accepting assignment. If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, contact your plan directly to find out if the services are covered.
Annual Wellness Visit
Your doctor will create or update a personalized wellness plan based on your current health, risk factors and goals.
Medicare covers several, including an abnormal aortic aneurysm screening, a bone mass measurement screening (once every 24 months) and cardiovascular disease screenings (once every five years).
If your doctor determines that you might be at risk for diabetes, Medicare will cover a diabetes screening. If you have diabetes, coverage includes some diabetic testing supplies and outpatient diabetes self-management training.
Medicare covers several preventive shots, including an annual flu shot, a hepatitis B shot for those at heightened risk for hepatitis B and a pneumococcal shot to prevent certain infections such as pneumonia.
Medicare covers body mass index screenings; if your body mass index is 30 or more, Medicare provides free behavioral therapy sessions geared toward losing weight through proper diet and exercise.
Alcohol and Substance Abuse
Medicare provides for one free alcohol abuse screening per year, and covers alcoholism and substance use disorder treatment in both inpatient and outpatient settings if your doctor states that the services are medically necessary.
Medicare covers 80 percent of eight visits for any illness caused by tobacco use and provides tobacco cessation counseling as a preventive service.