The Loneliness Epidemic

How It’s Affecting our Seniors
By Nicole L. Czarnomski

Humans live their entire lives as a part of a community. Our social circles begin with family and grow exponentially until the age of retirement, after which they can start to shrink. Because isolation is increasingly common in seniors, it’s believed to be contributing to a loneliness epidemic.   

HOW DOES ISOLATION OCCUR?

“Impairment of our five senses can cause some seniors to isolate,” says Tricia Schilling, nursing home services manager at Olmsted Medical Center. For example, if hearing is impaired, seniors may skip social gatherings for fear of answering a question incorrectly. 

The weather in Minnesota can also be a deterrent to leaving home. The cold can be painful on the body, and many seniors are fearful of falling on the ice. Because of this, seniors are more likely to skip their doctor’s appointments in the winter months. 

Isolation also stems from a restricted budget. Seniors may think twice about going out for a celebratory dinner or drink with friends and family. 

THE EFFECTS OF ISOLATION

Social isolation significantly increases the risk of premature mortality. Judy Strenge, a nurse with Visiting Angels states, “Isolation and loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day or abusing alcohol. Isolation is also two times more harmful than obesity.”

According to Strenge, loneliness and
isolation cause many seniors to miss taking their medications or getting them refilled. Their personal hygiene suffers. They may drink or smoke more. Their nutrition suffers, and often, there are significant mood changes, specifically depression. 

SENIOR COMMUNITIES AND OTHER SOLUTIONS

Living in a senior housing community is an excellent way to combat isolation. These communities foster relationships and provide transportation to social outings and doctor appointments. They offer nutritious meals and engaging activities and programs and may offer access to nursing or health care. According to Schilling, senior housing takes the work out of being social. The programs and meals are prepared; you just show up to participate.

In addition, Schilling says Rochester provides several solutions to keep seniors active and social. “125 Live does a fabulous job of looking at the importance of developing social companionship. Lutheran Social Services and Elder Network are other agencies that go above and beyond to pair peers together.”

Other ways to combat loneliness include becoming a volunteer and getting a pet. “We know that pets provide a great deal of support, love and purpose for many, so having a program with pets could be a great intervention,” says Schilling.

HOW OMC HELPS COMBAT SOCIAL ISOLATION

Olmsted Medical Center recently launched Active Aging Services, a program to help older adults who use the emergency room for non-emergent illnesses. Noticing that some seniors were coming in for headaches and upset stomachs in order to socialize with their favorite nurses and realizing that these older adults needed more companionship, they developed the program alongside Lutheran Social Services. 

Schilling says the program is designed for adults over the age of 50 who have five or more emergency room visits in a three-month period. “These adults were paired with long-term senior companions at no charge,” she says, “and OMC covers the cost for these services.”

Another solution for seniors at OMC is the Transition Coach program, which helps seniors who are leaving nursing homes and returning home. Transition Coaches make house calls and provide safety assessments for seniors to encourage them to remain independent.  

If you’re experiencing loneliness, these local services can help:

Olmsted Medical Center’s Active Aging Services Program
507-529-6869
olmmed.org/clinical-services/active-aging-services

Lutheran Social Services
800-582-5260 • lssmn.org

Elder Network
507-285-5272 • elder-network.org

125 Live
507-287-1404 • 125livemn.org

Visiting Angels
507-289-1147
visitingangels.com/rochester/home

Salvation Army Caring Partners Adult Day Center
507-288-5191
centralusa.salvationarmy.org/northern/ RochesterAdultDayCenter