Among the greatest threats to seniors’ health are feelings of social isolation and loneliness. Because of fewer relationships or unrewarding relationships, both of these feelings can grow and lead to depression, the most common mental health problem seen in the older population. When a spouse, older relatives and friends pass away and social circles get smaller, seniors may feel isolated and lonely, and even in senior living communities, despite other people being nearby, a sense of loneliness can grow. One Canadian study found that 45 percent of participants aged 72 and over showed high levels of loneliness; 85 percent were also considered socially isolated because they had few regular social contacts. A person’s sense of loneliness is one of the strongest predictors of health and the use of health care services among seniors living in care facilities. Loneliness is also associated with diabetes, heart disease, ulcers, respiratory conditions, headache, low back pain and abdominal pain, and people who aren’t in good health tend to feel more anxious and more lonely. Conversely, people who are not lonely seem to have a more positive view of their relationships, accept aging and its changes and feel healthier.
Research being conducted by The Behavioral and Social Research Program at The National Institute on Aging has been exploring the relationship between physical and mental health and social connections among the elderly to uncover the ways in which social networks can be used to positively influence health and happiness and even longevity. A study of 7,000 people conducted by Sherry G. Ford, PhD and George S. Ford, PhD at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, found that using the internet had a positive effect on the mental well-being of elderly Americans and could lead to a 20 percent reduction in depression. Facilitating seniors getting connected are new services such as the Connected Living program from MyWay Village, a senior-focused technology company that enables seniors to get online easily by combining access to simplified technology with personal training and support in senior living communities as well as in home in some areas
But being wired isn’t the only answer. The Canadian study included recommendations to address the isolation and loneliness issue among older people with the basic suggestion that people should keep in regular contact with older family members, friends and neighbors to ensure that older people feel needed and valued. Widely accessible advances in technology have made staying in touch easier on many different levels. Consider the benefits of large button phones for the visually impaired as well as speech recognition or captioned phones that visually display the caller’s speech for the hearing impaired. Another service is built around a device that transmits email messages and photos to recipients without a computer, allowing sending and receiving at any time of day or night and maintaining that all-important connection between family visits.