Alone and Lonely: The Health Challenge of Senior Isolation

Author: MarinHealth

In 2017, the National Institute on Aging estimated that about 28% of older persons—9.3 million women and 4.5 million men—lived alone. For many of these seniors, loneliness is a fact of life. They may be widowed or childless, or their children may live too far away to visit very often. Their circle of friends may be dwindling, or they have transportation or mobility challenges that make it hard to leave home. All of these factors contribute to social isolation, which, according to Medicare Advantage, is one of the biggest threats—physically, mentally and emotionally—to the health of seniors. Especially at risk are seniors who have recently lost a spouse or partner, are separated from friends and family, or are struggling to adjust to retirement.

According to the MarinHealth 2019 Community Health Needs Assessment, social isolation is a serious and potentially growing problem for many Marin seniors. Marin is one of California’s “oldest” counties. Persons over the age of 60 make up 28% of Marin’s total population and that percentage is expected to go up to 33% by 2030.

The National Institute on Aging is funding studies to understand the physiological impact loneliness and isolation have on the body. One theory is that loneliness may impact the cells in the immune system that promote inflammation. Social isolation has been linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, arterial plaque buildup, obesity, and a weakened immune system. The impact on emotional and mental health includes anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, and Alzheimer’s.

As worrisome as all this may sound, there’s a silver lining: engaging in meaningful social activities can make a huge difference in a senior’s general health, attitude, and even cognitive function. For many, that starts with family and friends, but there are other ways to create community:

  • Finding the right “tribe.” This might mean finding a group of people who share the same interests and hobbies. Some Marin resources include:
    • Whistlestop, a local organization that provides a variety of programs and services to promote independence and well-being for seniors in Marin, including classes and several transportation services to expand mobility.
    • Marin Villages, an online community thatempowers older adults to be active, connected, and independent. Marin Villages organizes social events, and its volunteers provide transportation, non-medical in-home assistance, and referrals for services that require more time and expertise than their volunteers can provide.
    • AgeSong Marin is a discussion and support group where seniors can connect with others, and share their experiences or talk about what’s really important at this stage of life in moderator-guided, small group discussions.
  • Volunteering. Working for a common cause gets folks out and about and provides them with a sense of purpose. In fact, an important study of people who lived to 90 and beyond found that civic engagement was a major factor in supporting longevity.
    • The County of Marin has put together a great list of opportunities and organizations right here in our community. Many community members over the age of 65 donate their time and talents to MarinHealth Medical Center. To learn more, click here.
  • Attending a house of worship can help seniors feel connected and inspired.

Reprinted from the November issue of MarinHealth’s e-newsletter Health Connection. Health Connection is a free membership program for the community. Benefits include:

  • A monthly e-newsletter with tips for better health, advance notice and invitations to lectures, and other health-related events
  • Information and updates about MarinHealth
  • Special information about services available through our Integrative Wellness Program
  • Free gifts, such as recipe e-books, healthy shopping lists, and more!
  • Special Promotion: Sign up and receive 10% off Farm Fresh to You CSA Deliveries
  • Special Promotion: Sign up and to receive link to a collection of recipes from our executive leaders.

Get started on a new year of good health! Go to www.mymarinhealth.org/healthconnection.