Make plans to avoid loneliness

By Wendy McHaney
May 12, 2017 at 2:36 p.m.
Updated May 13, 2017 at 1 a.m.

When we think of a silent killer, we usually think of a disease, something like high blood pressure or diabetes. However, one condition may actually be the deadliest of all for the elderly: loneliness.

The effects of loneliness in the elderly has been extensively researched in recent years and has been pronounced as a hidden killer of elderly. It is reported to be more dangerous than smoking since a high degree of loneliness precipitates suicidal thoughts, Alzheimer's disease and adversely affects the immune and cardiovascular system.

It is a generally accepted opinion that loneliness results in a decline of well-being and has adverse effects on physical health through immunologic impairment and neuroendocrine changes.

In other words, loneliness makes a person sick, interferes with day to day functioning and hampers recovery. Loneliness is therefore believed to be among the latent causes of hospitalization and of placement in nursing homes.

In 2013, Merrill Lynch partnered with Age Wave (MLAW) to study the realities of retirement. Age Wave is a research and consulting firm that focuses on issues relating to the aging population. The MLAW study asked pre-retirees what they would miss most about work when they retire. While reliable income was clearly the most important aspect to be missed, social connection was significantly less important.

Then MLAW followed up by asking a group of those currently retired what they missed the most about work. While reliable income was still relevant, the responses were starkly different. Social connections ranked highest as what is actually missed.

Obviously there is a big difference between what we think is important in retirement, and what is actually important once we reach that stage.

The MLAW study also found that the majority of retirees say their enjoyment depends more on who they do an activity with than what they are doing. For example, retirees would rather pick up trash with the grandkids than spend an afternoon on the golf course. Also, married couples get the most pleasure out of being with family, including kids and grandkids. However, single retirees predominantly prefer time with friends and time alone.

So as the MLAW study concludes, not only do we need to financially plan for our futures, we need to plan socially as well - a form of "social security." Invest in building a support network early rather than waiting for crisis mode. Think through whether to move away in retirement, or at least make sure that the move is not to an isolated situation. Volunteering, joining clubs, and taking classes are beneficial ways for seniors to stay connected. But you don't have to become a social butterfly to prevent isolation, just build a solid foundation of support.

Sources:

"Loneliness: A disease?", Sarvada Chandra Tiwari, Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 2013 Oct-Dec; 55(4): 320-322

"Healthy Aging: Preventing Isolation", Lisa Esposito, US News, Aug. 14, 2015

Wendy McHaney is a certified senior adviser and the owner and director of operations of Senior Helpers. For more information about Senior Helpers, visit seniorhelpers.com/victoria.


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