Expand Your Circles, by Maggie Kraft, MSW
While we are all social animals, we differ greatly in our social needs. Living alone and being able to choose when to be with other people works well for many of us. For others, the same situation can morph into isolation and loneliness and lead to serious health repercussions. Are we doing our own thing alone and happily so, or are we missing friends, family, and community engagement? The issue really is choice.
This has nothing to with whether or not you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert. There is a difference between choosing or preferring to spend time by yourself and being isolated and lonely. Introverts aren’t by definition lonely. Extroverts aren’t automatically not lonely.
An estimated one in five adults over age 50 are affected by isolation. (“Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50,” AARP Foundation, May 2012) Prolonged isolation can be as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, (“Perspectives on Psychological Science,” Holt-Lundstad-10(2), 227-237, 2015)
Older adults who describe themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death (“Loneliness Linked to Serious Health Problems and Death Among Older Adults,” University of California San Francisco, June 2012)
Isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, weakened immune system, depression and anxiety, dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, admission to nursing homes, use of emergency services, and death. (“Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation and Health among Older Adults,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior (2009))
The “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50” cites a number of factors that put us at greater risk for poor health outcomes:
• Living alone
• Mobility or sensory impairments
• Major life transitions or losses
• Low income or limited financial resources
• Being a caregiver for someone with a serious condition
• Psychological or cognitive challenges
• Inadequate social support
• Rural, unsafe and/or inaccessible neighborhood
• Transportation access challenges
• Language barriers
• Age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and/or gender identity barriers.
If you aren’t lonely or socially isolated, chances are you know someone who is. They may have a hard time reaching out, but if you take the time to connect you can help keep them healthy and engaged.
No one expects you to be the life of the party if that isn’t your style, but being connected is critical to healthy aging. Humboldt County has a multitude of opportunities to connect, with many specifically designed for older adults. Seniors Centers in Fortuna, Ferndale, Eureka, Arcata, McKinleyville and Redway serve meals and offer a variety of classes and events. Volunteering is a great way to meet others with similar interests and participate in important and meaningful service to others. A1AA’s Senior Information Guide (found around town or online at www.a1aa.org) lists services that can help you reconnect.
Take this self-assessment* to see where you want to focus your energy.
|I live alone.||YES||NO|
|I see or talk to my family members one or more times per week.||NO||YES|
|I see or talk to my friends one or more times per week.||NO||YES|
|I provide daily care or support to a family member or friend who needs assistance with everyday tasks (such as preparing meals, providing transportation and grocery shopping.)||YES||NO|
|I generally have a ride or the transportation that I need to get where I want to go.||NO||YES|
|It is difficult or impossible to leave my home without assistance.||YES||NO|
|I feel that I make a meaningful contribution to the world or people around me.||NO||YES|
|On a weekly basis I participate in social activities with family/friends or attend organized group activities, such as church, cultural Performances, group meals, exercise classes, support groups, etc.||NO||YES|
|I often feel that I lack companionship.||YES||NO|
|I often feel left out.||YES||NO|
|If I had a problem and needed help or advice, I know someone I could rely on.||NO||YES|
|If I had good news or an interesting story to tell, I know someone I could tell.||NO||YES|
|Within the past year I have suffered a major loss or change, like death of a loved one or retirement.||YES||NO|
|TOTAL ANSWERS CIRCLED IN LEFT COLUMN||______|
2 – you are at risk of isolation. Now you are aware of the risk factors, you can take steps to avoid becoming isolated. Any of us who live alone already have one point on this tool, so it is important to find ways to make sure we maintain contact with the outside world.
3 or more – you may already be experiencing the negative consequences of isolation and would benefit from taking steps to reconnect and address the barriers that may be causing your isolation.
*The Self-Assessment tool is from the Eldercare Locator’s “Expand Your Circles” brochure.