Defeating Loneliness: Stay in Touch with a Senior

How a small gesture can make a big difference.

Posted Jun 14, 2018

Chalmers Butterfield/WikiMediaCommons
Source: Chalmers Butterfield/WikiMediaCommons

As the population ages and the number of adults over 65 increases, loneliness—particularly for those who live by themselves—is on the rise. This is a cause for your concern, because social scientists and researchers are finding that loneliness is an independent risk factor for the development of several psychological and medical problems, including depression, cardiovascular disease, and even premature death. While it’s true that not everyone who lives alone is lonely—and one can feel lonely even while surrounded by others—there is a strong correlation between social isolation and loneliness.

I'm not suggesting that getting older automatically leads to problems. As a matter of fact, we are discovering that there are many myths about what happens as people move into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Despite an increased likelihood of cognitive decline and age related medical problems, many people have the capacity to live full, active, and happy aging lives. Dr. Dilip Jeste, Head of UC San Diego Center for Healthy Aging (Old People Are Happier Than People In Their 20s) and Dr. Laura Carstensen, author of A Long Bright Future, both point out that in terms of such issues as happiness and a positive outlook on life, those in middle adulthood are more likely to be less content than those age 65 and beyond. My co-author, Ken Blanchard, and I showed a way forward for those who were leaving or changing their professional lives in Refire! Don’t Retire!. Hence, the subtitle Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life.

Yet loneliness is a growing problem for older adults who have outlived friends and family. Recently, the UK decided to appoint a Minister of Loneliness to address the issue. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that lonely older adults spend more time visiting their primary care physicians, not because they are sicker, but to interact with other older adults and the warm and welcoming medical staff.

Source: Burim//WikiMediaCommons

The loneliness problem cannot be solved by government or health or mental health professionals alone. Recognizing this, many seniors are participating in the emerging the Village Movement. Instead of leaving their homes for senior housing or assisted living, groups of senior citizens are forming non-profit membership organizations to provide services—transportation, meal delivery, nurses, etc.—that support their goal of remaining at home as long as possible. 

The Village Movement is a start, but I believe each of us needs to take responsibility for the older people in our lives. So:

I challenge everyone with an older family member, friend, or colleague—particularly if that person is living alone—to make a commitment to connect with that person at least once a week.

I understand that geographic distance may make it impossible to make contact in person. Even if your friend is technologically savvy—which is not true of most older adults—texts and emails have less of an emotional impact. While it may seem like a throwback to an earlier time, I suggest you make a phone call rather than connect electronically.

I'm hoping to start a Stay in Touch with a Senior movement. As you adopt the habit of staying in touch with older adults, encourage others to do the same. If you find that these older adults are not talking to anyone on a regular basis, encourage them to reach out to their children, grandchildren, friends, and even people they have met recently. Wouldn't it be terrific if each of us took the opportunity to connect with someone we knew years ago, or even someone new?

Now, don’t just sit here reading this blog. Do it! Or as a colleague of mine said recently when I proposed this idea, “Just pick up the damn phone!”