iAge

Changing how we see aging

Are Older Adults Lonelier?

Experiencing loneliness in older adults

From the moment we are born we struggle to establish self-identity. We separate ourselves from others by becoming aware that we are unique beings. With this realization comes the awareness of loneliness. Uniqueness comes at the price of realization that the “I” cannot be shared. This is the essence of existential loneliness. But another kind of loneliness exists as well. This is the “emotion” of loneliness—the feeling of not belonging, of feeling unloved and unwanted.

This year, in a national internet study for AARP, Gretchen Anderson reported that just over one-third of the survey respondents 45 years and older, reported being lonely. More then two thirds reported that they had no specific reason for this feeling.

A general assumption exists that older people are lonelier then other age groups. In the AARP study older adults reported lower rates of loneliness than those who were younger (43% of those age 45-49 were lonely compared to 25% of those 70+). Being married, having higher income, attending religious services, volunteering, having a hobby, being in your current home longer than a year, and reporting better health all contributed to feeling less lonely.

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Researchers often confuse loneliness with depression. The two are related, but while depression can be long lasting and might have a biochemical component, loneliness tends to be more short term. The two are however intertwined.

Depression may be described as feeling sad, blue, unhappy, or miserable. Although most of us feel this way at one time or another for short periods, clinical depression changes our mood so much so that it affects sleeping, eating, energy levels, and concentration. It impinges on everyday activities and affects health, relationships, health care use, quality of life, and even mortality.

Depression can creep up on you—especially since most older adults might have multiple ill-health issues at the same time—it can be easy to overlook that depression might be causing some of the symptoms. Steps to address depression should be taken seriously since it correlates with other chronic diseases.

Depression might be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease. The disease affects cells that produce brain chemicals such as serotonin and norepinephrine, which can play a role in depression. In addition, because a chronic vitamin D deficiency can cause both depression and osteoporosis, depression might be the only visible sign of osteoporosis. On of the first signs of Depression, as with Alzheimer’s disease, is the loss of smell. So depression could indicate that there are other, life threatening, neurological changes.

Depression, especially severe depression, eventually reacts favorably to medication, and by alleviating depression loneliness might be mitigated. Realizing that you are depressed and that you need help opens up several good resources.The National Alliance on Mental Illness can be reached at 1-800-950-6264, while local agencies might have Senior Mental Health Team, which provides crisis assessment and assistance. Feeling lonely and depressed do not have to be endured alone.

© USA Copyrighted Mario D Garrett 2013

Mario Garrett, Ph.D., is a professor at the school of social work, San Diego State University.

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