Is Loneliness a Side Effect of Aging?

We all know what happens when you get older. As the body ages, different problems emerge: you experience more aches and pains, have more trouble remembering where you put that one item and may have to schedule more trips to the doctor.

While frustrating, these are relatively harmless side effects. However, what if there was a deeper and more emotional problem afoot? Research shows that one-third of older adults experience moderate to severe levels of loneliness.

With multiple social changes and adapting to a different way of living, it is not uncommon for seniors to feel isolated or alone. Unfortunately, those who are suffering from a lack of connection tend to experience a greater decline in their daily living skills and overall health. Especially these days, social isolation is seen as a public health issue.

There are multiple factors that might be contributing to a person feeling alone. Developing awareness of what those factors are and how to make small changes could positively impact both physical and mental health for aging adults.

What is Loneliness?

Many describe the experience of being lonely as feeling ‘empty’ inside. Someone may be in a house full of people or living in a retirement community and still feel an impending sense of isolation. This loneliness is referring to the perceived deficits in relation to others. Rather than a focus on physical location, this is tapping into a larger sense of the quality and connectedness that exist (or does not exist) in relationships.  

Social isolation can occur where the loneliness stems from not being integrated into society, such as moving into a new community and not knowing anyone. Conversely, there can also be emotional loneliness where a person does not feel like they have a reliable attachment figure in their life. Different types of loneliness may require different approaches to calm the ache inside.

A Study on Loneliness

One way of considering loneliness is by paying attention to perception. In one study, they found that one’s beliefs about the roots of their loneliness led to how social they acted.

When making connections or friendships was viewed as something under their control, it was found that individuals tended to participate more socially. However, when a senior viewed this as ‘luck’ or cited factors they considered outside of their control, then the result was that they did not engage with others as much and consequently felt more isolated.

In this example, it is easy to see how the mind can be a powerful tool to determine how we view our circumstances.

Changes in Social Roles

As we age, the social circles that we’ve known and had for years will become smaller. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the longer someone lives, the more death and loss they will experience.

What’s more, they also may experience friends moving away or even themselves face a decision about whether to move into a retirement community, a more accessible home, or to a child’s home for support. These all create changes and losses in the regular social structure and can create a culture of grief. This, of course, adds to the stress of the generation, making it difficult to find deep-rooted connections with others.

Even when living with family members, there are likely changes that will follow in that relationship that add to the difficulty. When a loved one becomes a caregiver, there is a new distribution of power that can add stress to the relationship and require quite an adjustment.

A Need for Connection

Often, what the elderly family member is craving is a conversation that is about more than their mid-day meal, their health or medication dosage. They may long for a time when they had more agency in their life, and weren’t as dependent on others.  

With this knowledge in mind, when considering care for an older adult, finding ways to have meaningful social contact is just as important as medical visits. This could be something like taking time in the family to have a meal together and reminisce or engaging in community opportunities like a senior center. The most valuable aspect of this is taking into account the social needs and desires of each unique senior.

Coming to Terms with an Aging Body and Aging Mind

A significant factor that can lead to loneliness is one’s relationship with their body and health. As the body ages, many must come to terms that they do not have the same physical or cognitive capabilities as they did in their earlier years. This can create embarrassment, shame, and frustration for many.

In old age, barriers now exist to regular life that may not have been there before, such as being unable to drive to see friends or family. A person may feel that accepting help or using accommodations would be an infringement on their independence or see themselves as a burden on others. This line of thinking may initially allow a person to exert their independence by refusing help or services, but may actually limit them even further from meeting their needs or participating in activities they enjoy.

However, using the strengths of creativity and resilience, one can overcome these challenges.

Developing a sort of self-management can promote acceptance of the changes that come with aging. Additionally seeing these changes as part of the aging process can help navigate difficulties in a way that allows each individual to continue to have their needs met. This sense of agency fosters confidence in self and problem-solving skills which can lead to new ways to connect with others and feel comfortable in our aging bodies.

Finding Meaning Later in Life

Aging creates many hardships, and figuring out how to stay connected does not always have an easy answer. Becoming older can be an opportunity to learn and grow although does require much adaptation. Learning how to transfer skills and lessons from younger years and apply them to current problems can help develop the wisdom we associate with old age.

Participating in counseling can be a helpful tool to process the grief and loneliness you or a loved one may be experiencing. Counseling at Pure Health Center is here to support you through this, and all of life’s stages.

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