The longer we live, the more likely we are to face the death of a spouse or loved one, the loss of a job, a change in our living conditions or reduced health and mobility. And it’s normal to feel alone occasionally, no matter your age. At times, though, loneliness can overwhelm us.
More than a third of Americans age 50 to 80 say they feel a lack of companionship at least part of the time, and 27 percent say they often feel isolated from others, according to the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging.
People react differently to life-changing events, says Buff Donovan, LMSW, ACSW, HAP’s director of Coordinated Behavioral Health Management. Some people are comfortable being alone, she says, while others feel alone even when they’re with others. But chronic loneliness can shorten your life span as much as being overweight or even smoking, according to the University of Michigan report.
Who can help?
Seniors who have developed healthy relationships with neighbors and extended family are the least likely to feel alone. And while we often rely on relatives as we age, it’s important to expand the definition of family to include the people next door or friends from church – children and grandchildren may no longer live close enough to give you the companionship you need, Donovan says.
If your loneliness is interfering with your daily life – you’re especially sad, not going out the way you used to, unhappy even in a group – it’s time to get a medical evaluation, she says. Your health care provider can make sure you don’t have anything physically wrong and can help treat you if you are depressed. An option might include talk therapy, which could mean finding a grief and loss group nearby. Clinical depression likely would require medication.
Companions come in many forms
Donovan’s mother, who is 85, has developed her own strategy to help her through the sudden loss of her husband – Donovan’s father – and it included searching out some friends with two legs, others with four. “She goes to the senior center, does her workout, meets with a grief group at church and she comes and walks my dog,” Donovan says. “She gets the joy of walking and taking care of the dog, but she can leave it at my home.”
Pets are remarkably effective in warding off loneliness, according to the University of Michigan report. Pet owners said their pets make them feel loved, provide a sense of purpose, connect them with other people, help them cope with physical and emotional problems and keep them physically active. And this doesn’t have to mean a high-maintenance dog or cat. “Some people really enjoy watching their fish,” Donovan says.
Not a pet lover? Senior centers are especially valuable for people who are alone, says Donovan: “They help you feel connected to a group of individuals who are experiencing similar situations.”
What’s keeping us isolated?
When you’re feeling lonely, it’s often difficult to ask for help, because we feel we should be able to cope on our own. But there is strength in numbers, Donovan says. Health issues and
lack of mobility can make it physically difficult to go out, Donovan says. In that case, invite people in, call friends and family or even look for an online support group.
“You might have to reconfigure your life,” she says. If you’re uncomfortable going out by yourself, enlist a friend, at least for the first few times. They might be happy for the company. And don’t lose hope, Donovan says: “The first step is the hardest. Life still goes on, and it can be a good life.”
- If you’re a HAP member and need someone to talk to, contact HAP’s Coordinated Behavioral Health Department at (800) 444-5755.
- Hospice of Michigan can help connect you with grief and loss support groups. Call (888) 247-5701 or visit Hospice of Michigan's website and search for “grief support.”
- Find a senior center through the Area Agency on Aging. Call (800) 852-7795 or visit the Area Agency on Aging's website and search for “senior centers.” Or, ask your health care provider.
For more healthy living tips, read our Balance Living blog.