Nearly one-third of all seniors live by themselves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s close to 13.8 million seniors aging alone. Senior isolation is both common and dangerous — and while living alone doesn’t inevitably lead to senior loneliness, the two often go hand-in-hand.

Throughout the 1950s, psychiatrist Frieda Fromm-Reichman raised awareness about loneliness as a condition that affects people’s health and well-being. She defined loneliness as the difference between someone’s “preferred and actual social relations,” and described its risks to aging populations. Since then, scientists have continued to study senior loneliness.

Understand the negative mental and physical effects of senior isolation, and learn ways to help seniors who are lonely or living alone. 

Facts about senior loneliness and the effects of isolation

Why are seniors isolated, and how does loneliness affect older adults? As the baby boomer generation ages, researchers are studying the  effects of senior loneliness and why more seniors are aging alone.

What are the dangers of senior isolation and the effects of loneliness?

  • Loneliness leads to health complications
    Loneliness is as deadly as smoking or obesity, according to a Brigham Young University study. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Chicago note blood pressure and stress levels are “significantly higher” in lonely people, especially seniors.
  • Unhealthy habits increase
    Social isolation often leads to bad health habits, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Lonely seniors are more likely to smoke, drink in excess, and neglect the need for physical activity. Conversely, social support can encourage seniors to eat well, exercise, and live healthy lifestyles.
  • Loneliness increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease
    Loneliness is a risk factor for cognitive decline, according to a study conducted by the Rush Institute for Healthy Aging. In the study, the risk of Alzheimer’s nearly doubled in lonely adults, and mental decline was faster. This could be because isolated older people have less stimulation, or because their symptoms are less likely to be reported before the disease has progressed, suggested the study.
  • Isolation leads to higher instances of elder abuse
    There are several reasons for this correlation, according to the National Center on Elder Abuse. Isolated seniors are more likely to fall prey to scammers and financial abuse. Neglect, one of the seven types of elder abuse, is more likely to go unnoticed. Seniors themselves are less likely to report physical abuse without a trusted family member, and they may protect abusers if they don’t have other caregiver resources.
  • Lonely seniors assume the worst
    Socially isolated seniors are 60% more likely to predict their quality of life decreasing over the next 10 years. They’re also more concerned about needing help from community programs as they get older, and they’re more likely to express concerns about aging in place, according to the National Council on Aging.

Why are more seniors aging alone?

  • Family dynamics have changed
    Divorce rates have nearly doubled over the past 40 years, and the number of adults who never married is at an all-time high, according to the most recent U.S. Census. National birth rates also plummeted after the baby boomer generation, meaning more seniors are childless. These factors lead to a decrease in family caregivers.
  • Women are more likely to live alone than men
    Higher percentages of women are widowed, divorced, or never married. The median income of women older than 65 is $18,380 — that’s roughly half of men’s $32,000 average, according to a study conducted by the Administration on Aging (AoA). This financial discrepancy makes it more difficult for single women to afford home health care or assisted living later in life. Interestingly, more men report being lonely in old age, while women are more content to age alone.
  • Neighborhood dynamics change
    Many seniors choose to stay home as long as possible, often citing their community as a main reason to age in place. However, community dynamics change over time — gentrification, new job opportunities, and an increase in urban living can bring in younger neighbors, which can isolate seniors. 55+ communities can be a good option for seniors who want to maintain a neighborly environment as they age.
  • Planned solitude decreases loneliness
    Seniors who find themselves unexpectedly alone are at a higher risk of related complications than those who expect to age without a spouse or family. This means widowers and people who’ve lost younger family members experience higher levels of perceived loneliness, according to the AoA study.
  • LGBTQ+ seniors are more likely to be socially isolated
    LGBTQ+ seniors are twice as likely to live alone, according to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). This is because they’re less likely to have children and are more commonly single or estranged from their biological families.
  • Transportation challenges lead to social isolation
    Forty-one percent of seniors believe that transportation in their communities is inaccessible or inadequate, according to the National Council on Aging. Since many people lose their ability to drive as they age, they’re likely to be isolated without available transit.
  • Married couples can be lonely, too
    Seniors don’t have to live alone to be lonely. Older adults who are married are just as likely to report feeling isolated as those who aren’t married. This is partially because couples who focused on children for years aren’t used to living without them. Spouses who act as caregivers for their partners are at risk of emotional isolation, since they often don’t have time for activities or social outings.
  • Seniors may feel they’re being left behind
    New technologies and lifestyles can be overwhelming for seniors. The first generation to experience color TV and the personal computer is inundated with new, seemingly inaccessible tech without proper instruction.

Help for seniors living alone

Senior loneliness is a public health crisis everyone can help resolve. Whether it’s reaching out with a friendly “hello” or scheduling time to help a senior near you, you’ll make an impact. Even 15 minutes of interaction a day can mitigate the effects of loneliness on seniors, according to the AoA.

Make time for seniors. Social distancing from the coronavirus has made senior isolation more prevalent, but it’s also demonstrated how well we can communicate from afar. If you have aging relatives, call them, and encourage your family to do the same. Zoom and other video chat services are a great way to connect. If you run out of conversation topics, try asking these 20 questions seniors never get tired of hearing.

Volunteering decreases loneliness. The more volunteer associations to which a senior belongs, the lower their collective loneliness, according to the Administration on Community Living. Volunteering gives seniors a sense of purpose, and it allows them to engage in personal interests. The good news is that volunteering is possible even without social contact: Intergenerational programs allow seniors to help young children with reading over the phone or via pen pal letters.

Exercise feels good physically and emotionally. Seniors staying active helps ward off anxiety and depression in addition to offering physical health benefits. If you live in a neighborhood with socially isolated seniors, suggest taking a short walk together or spending time outside. During this time of social distancing, remember to wear a mask or stay 6 feet apart.

Learning and exploring reduce cognitive decline. There are hundreds of online resources for seniors who want to learn from home. From video livestreams of zoos and museums to open online courses, there are mentally stimulating resources available to fit every senior’s interests.

Senior living prevents loneliness in seniors. Older adults are less likely to feel lonely when they have the opportunity to spend time with friends and peers. A senior living community counters many of the reasons for social isolation described above: Without having to worry about transportation, entertainment, or family dynamics, seniors have more time to live a life they enjoy.