Oprah Winfrey interviewed over 30,000 people in her career and found one common trait among them all – everyone just wants to know that they matter. But as we age, this becomes more difficult. We are no longer caretakers, mentors, bosses, employees or, often, spouses. We move away from the big families, the bustling workplaces and the intimate relationships of youth. Often, we become socially isolated. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 28% of older adults, totaling 13.8 million people, live alone. And this isolation takes a toll on us.
Social isolation has been proven to have terrible effects on our health and happiness. It has been linked to high blood pressure, obesity, Alzheimer’s, depression, anxiety and a weakened immune system. In addition to the physiological effects, people who are lonely are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like eating poorly, being sedentary and smoking. So, what do we do for ourselves and our loved ones as we age? There are three ways to combat social isolation in seniors.
The first thing is to make sure we’re physically able. It’s difficult to go out into the world when you are – or feel – impaired. In order engage, we need to be able to do the basics – see, hear, move about, and be comfortable. Glasses, hearing aids and good shoes are critical. Medical issues like incontinence and prescription reminders can often be addressed with simple technological assistance. Transportation is a big obstacle for many seniors as they lose the ability to drive, but there are fixes for that, too. Lyft, for instance, has partnerships with healthcare companies to allow older adults to summon a ride by phone if the app is too confusing. Other technology, like a smart phone for video chats, can help us stay connected and able to join in activities that keep us engaged in life.
Second, we need to be confident. Many older people are self-conscious about their aging bodies and uncomfortable being looked at. So, clothes that are age-appropriate but stylish are actually quite important, as is good grooming. There’s nothing like a good haircut to make you feel like going out, no matter how little hair you may have left. Though these things might seem like an extravagance for older folks, particularly those on a fixed income, they are necessary for having an engaged and healthy life.
Lastly, we need purpose. We don’t need to be heroes, we can simply be dance partners or pet sitters or confidants. Research has shown that seniors who read to children in hospitals report greatly improved metrics for health and life satisfaction. Additionally, having a pet has been proven to greatly improve quality of life because of the bond created with the pet and, often, with other pet owners. All of these relationships are available by simply volunteering, joining a club, going to church, or reaching out to one of the many senior centers and organizations around the world. The important thing to remember that you belong in the world and that you are not alone in being alone. So, reach out.
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