Many physicians would readily agree that loneliness could be detrimental to anyone’s health as it can lead toward depression, anxiety, and a lack of confidence. But a recent study suggests that there is a connection between social isolation and a decrease in physical health as well.
According to Lisa Berkman, PhD, Director of Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, elderly people leading an isolated lifestyle have a mortality risk factor 3 times higher than people with plenty of social contacts.
Isolation Now and in the Future
Isolation is accelerating. It can happen to anyone at any age. And the outlook is even bleaker.
In spite of all our electronic connectivity, we are now more disconnected with people than we ever as compared to the past. We are on Facebook, Twitter, and email, but at the same time we are so under connected. What used to be a few deep and meaningful relationships have become 100’s of casual relationships via the internet. The results: We are not as physiologically engaged and less productive.
What causes isolation?
Let’s face it, some of us just enjoy being more socially isolated than others. But our society is playing a huge role in creating isolation especially among the elderly. Cities have become less community based and difficult to navigate. They have grown to meet the needs of individuals and the nuclear family as compared to 100 years ago when families lived with several generations under one roof. Also, few cities take into consideration an elderly person’s lifestyle when planning the city layout.
Not surprisingly, major life changes such as job changes, divorce, retirement, and caregiver transitions frequently initiate isolation. According to Richard Leider, Chairman and Founder of the Inventure Group, 59% of those in isolation have had a negative triggering event such as job loss or health issue.
Our society unknowingly encourages isolation in the elderly population. With the rapid shift in life expectancy, more people are now over 65 than under 15. We are living longer, but now what do we do with our time in our 70’s 80’s and 90’s?
Consequences of Isolation
Tips on increasing social interaction
Leider also stresses that all people really need a “sounding board” or a few people that they can talk to discuss problems and situations. People without a committed listener tend to harbor stressful feelings and fears eating away at ones spirit or purpose in life. Each person should have the following people in their circle:
He also emphasizes the “power of purpose”. Without a purpose, people are not as happy, don’t live as long, don’t heal as quickly, and not as engaged in work. The feeling of purpose includes giving your gift to a cause they feel worthy. Many studies have suggested this actually boosts the immune system.
Community Solutions to Combat isolation
Berkman suggests that there are several solutions to reducing isolation for the elderly, but the two important areas include designing flexible housing and workplaces. By designing cities and facilities with the elderly in mind, everyone benefits. Public transportation, usable sidewalks, multigenerational housing, and placing elderly housing close to social activities will benefit all.
Redesign working environments and expectations such as encouraging companies to use flexible work schedules.
Our educational system also needs to be revamped to accommodate a longer life span. Instead of focusing on a four year college education or masters program achieved in a person’s 20’s, educational systems need to offer continued education to accommodate a second or even third meaningful career in a person’s later years.
See Richard’s Leider’s video here