Thinking Ahead: The dangers of isolation for older adults

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Leaving grandma to live by herself might not be doing her any favors. In fact, it might be damaging to her mental and physical health.


Social isolation can happen to anyone of any age, but when kids fly the coop, friends move away, or spouses pass, older adults can often end up living alone. While social isolation, which is typically described as a lack of contact between an individual and society, can be a voluntary and perfectly comfortable situation for some, it’s when it’s not voluntary that real problems can occur. Social isolation that makes people feel lonely can have more than just mental and emotional effects.


“If someone is socially isolated and they don’t want to be that way and they feel lonely then there are some major potentials for problems,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bergman, associate professor in the Ithaca College gerontology department. “Increased stress hormones and inflammation physically means that people are at an increased risk of health conditions like heart disease and arthritis and diabetes.”


Bergman said that feelings of loneliness peak for young adults, and for older adults past the age of 80, but older adults between 65 to 80 don’t typically feel lonely or socially isolated. As you age and social networks become smaller, that’s when involuntary social isolation can increase.


It’s easy to understand the physical dangers that can come from isolated older adults like the potential for falling or hurting themselves and not being able to get help for a while. While these dangers can’t be discounted, the mental and emotional dangers of social isolation, while perhaps less understood, can be just as impactful. Anxiety and depression are two of the biggest mental health impacts of social isolation. In older adults, depression can be hard to spot, Bergman said.


“It doesn’t always look exactly the same, but there are some commonalities,” she said. “The feeling of despair, sometimes – and in social isolation this can be hard to tease out - but the pulling away from social contacts and relationships.”


For older people, Bergman said that it should be noted that symptoms of depression can be different. Compared to younger people experiencing mental health issues, among older people, complaints about physical pain or discomfort are more likely to be symptomatic of depression.


“Complaints about pain or about other physical ailments can be a sign of depression, rather than a sign of another disease,” Bergman said.


In comparison to younger generations, older generations are more likely to have a sense of stigma against mental health services, and therefore less likely to seek help or talk about their experience. This, paired with the difficulty of diagnosing, means that depression is largely underdiagnosed for older adults.
Combatting social isolation can be difficult, Bergman said, and the tools and tactics used depend on who is asking about how to do it. Children of older adults or people who are taking care of their aging family members should be mindful of how they might react. Locally, there are plenty of resources available to older adults looking to create community and combat social isolation.


Lifelong is a community center in Ithaca with a mission to “enhance the lives of older adults in Tompkins County.” Among the numerous activities available at or through Lifelong are community senior groups that meet across the county, book clubs, chess groups, drawing groups, knitting circles, dish-to-pass gatherings, classes in numerous subjects (gardening, technology, science, and several languages among them), to name a few.


Project Generations is a collaboration between Ithaca College, Cornell University, and the Tompkins County Office for the Aging that helps pair student volunteers with older adults in the area that want company. The students will visit their older friend in the community on a weekly basis for at least an hour.


“It’s been really beneficial both for older people who are socially isolated, but also for the students who are involved,” Bergman said. “I have a lot of students who are Project Generation volunteers and they get a lot out of it themselves.”
For adults who want more community but don’t want to move from their home, Love Living at Home is a local organization that creates a network for older adults and volunteers. Through the organization’s programs, the mission is to “enrich life and forge connections for new friendships. When you need peace of mind, support is one phone call away.” Love Living at Home is an aging-in-place initiative that connects older adults with volunteers to support them in whatever way necessary, from a ride to the doctor to fixing a leaky sink.


One of the barriers here in Tompkins County, a largely rural area, is transportation. While not all services and social connections are situated in a metropolitan area like Ithaca, many are. Gadabout is a great local resource for older adults who find transportation to be a difficulty, but services like Lyft and Uber can also be helpful.


Social connection doesn’t always have to be of the human kind, Bergman said. Owning a pet also helps combat social isolation and feelings of loneliness, and has helped members of her own family.


Bergman would recommend that people who may be feeling socially isolated and lonely take advantage of local mental health resources as well as finding social connection where possible. Therapists and support groups can help provide both.


Older adults, or caregivers, looking for these resources can call the Tompkins County Office for the Aging at (607) 274-5482.

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