The Health Perils of Isolation Among Older Adults


Geriatricians long believed that isolation was a health risk for seniors. They often observed a decline in mental health and cognitive abilities of older adults who weren’t actively involved in their communities. Newer research proves just how right these aging services professionals were.

We now know that isolation is linked to a variety of medical conditions. They include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Cardiac disease
  • Decreased mobility

Isolated older adults are more likely to fall victim to scams, as well as abuse alcohol or drugs.

Defining Isolation Among Older Adults

Contrary to popular belief, feeling lonely is not the same as being isolated. Researchers from McMaster University explained the differences:

“Whereas social isolation arises in situations where a person does not have enough people to interact with, an objective state, loneliness is the subjective experience of distress over not having enough social relationships or not enough contact with people. Although the two concepts can be related, a person can be socially isolated but not feel lonely, whereas an individual with a seemingly large social network can still experience loneliness.”

It is isolation that is linked to early mortality among older adults.

If you are an older adult or the adult child of one, here is what you should know about isolation and seniors.

What Leads to Isolation in Older Adults?

The first step in helping an older adult you love avoid becoming isolated is to understand the conditions that often contribute to it. The most common ones include:

  1. Lack of Transportation: This is a leading reason why seniors become isolated. If an older adult has cut back on driving or given up their keys entirely, they may not be aware of other options for making their way around town. Your local Agency on Aging will probably have a list of transportation services they can turn to for help. If you live in Seattle’s King County, for example, Sound Generations Transportation can help. It is a local non-profit organization that pairs volunteer drivers with seniors who need a ride.
  2. Loss of a Spouse: A senior who has lost a spouse is considered to be at higher risk for both loneliness and isolation. The transition from being part of a long-time couple to living alone is often very challenging. The surviving spouse may be unable or unwilling to attend community events and activities alone. Bereavement support groups, especially those made up of widows and widowers can help during this time.
  3. Lack of Social Network: For many reasons, an older adult might find their social network has decreased. Long-time friends move away to be closer to adult children. Trusted neighbors relocate for new employment opportunities. Isolation can sneak up on a loved one without anyone even realizing it. Encouraging an older family member to take a class at a local organization or join the senior center can be key to preventing isolation.

Campaigning to End Loneliness

To learn more or get involved in preventing isolation in your local community, we encourage you to visit The Campaign to End Loneliness: Connections in Older Age. This organization has a wide variety of resources you can use to encourage the older adult you love to reengage with life.


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