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Loneliness and It’s Impact on our “Healthspan”

desert-lonlinessOn a personal level, the topic of loneliness has become a growing issue in my community, and not just an issue for older adults. As we move through our own life circumstances, friends come in and out of our lives. The good friendships formed when you volunteered at your kid’s elementary school grow weak when the kids end up in different middle and high schools. I have a pack of crazy tennis mates and when one was facing breast cancer and another had a knee injury, our connections grew thinner. We still work to find ways to connect off the tennis courts, but it’s harder with all the other family and work priorities. Those transitions can present real pockets of loneliness in every adult life.

I have shared my concern over the aging in place movement in prior posts. When you are no longer driving and are now living alone in your home, the impact of loneliness on your health is a very real issue.

As reported by the Village to Village network in their August newsletter Loneliness has recently been called a medical epidemic and labeled an “adverse signal” alongside hunger, thirst and pain. A growing mountain of research is linking loneliness to physical illness as well as to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity or heavy smoking and studies confirm that loneliness shortens the lifespan by 7.5 years and, even more importantly, shortens the “healthspan” even more. “Denying you feel lonely,” warns one top researcher “makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger.” Loneliness is everybody’s business.

For someone with cognitive issues, not only does the loss of short term memory make it hard to make new friends, it makes it hard to participate in a host of social activities. I am seeing this in the clients I serve. What I learned after caring for my parents is that delaying a change can actually be detrimental.

When we moved my parents from Independent to Assisted Living (at the insistence of their community which we were grateful), my parent’s were the happiest they had been in a year. Trying to managing their larger apartment and maintain their lives was too much for them. They were now closer to a host of activities and out in the community more. I was physically ill for 3 days up to the move and pleasantly surprised by my parents joy with their new, smaller apartment.

The process of the move for someone with cognitive issues typically brings a step-down in capabilities. I watched it my mom when we moved her from Assisted Living into Memory Care. However, she bounced back and had periods of joy in her new community doing a host of new activities they offered.

As the care partner you are faced with so many choices. I hope you will consider how much isolation and loneliness can have on your loved ones and really consider when it might be time to make a change. There are really MANY great options in my community now. What about yours? Wondered.

5 comments on “Loneliness and It’s Impact on our “Healthspan”

  1. When my father moved from his home into Assisted Living, the activities kept him busy and that helped alleviate some of his loneliness. However, the busyness is not a substitute for a deep, personal connection with another person and now he is reporting he feels lonely more and more. I still feel that the move to Assisted Living was the correct one, I just wish I would have known that I should have been looking for a person-oriented facility where the staff is encouraged to spend one-on-one time with each resident on a daily basis.

    • That is a great point Barbara. Does he not have an opportunity to connect with the other residents, or is it difficult for him to form new friendships due to a health issue? My mom would call me to ask me to come visit her before I even had time to get back home from my visit with her. Due to her memory, she didn’t remember I was just there. That brought on a different level of loneliness and isolation.

      • He has lots of casual friends there but something is still missing for him – probably his wife of 62 years. We keep plugging away trying new things (daily phone calls and having caregivers visit weekly). I am glad to see this topic is receiving attention.

  2. I was surprised at how well my mother took to the skilled nursing facility she was at while she recovered from cancer surgery. I knew she was lonely after my father’s death. She soaked up all of the attention and interaction with others, it really lifted her spirits. I think she could’ve done well in an assisted living facility long-term but there were none near where she lived.

  3. Loneliness clearly features for my dear wife. She expresses it in all sorts of ways. Her explanation concerning the lack of visitors is that friends and relatives don’t know where we live!

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