ThedaCare Clinician explains why social connections are vital in avoiding loneliness and depression in older adults
“Prolonged feelings of loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. That is a stunning statistic,” said Michael Griffith, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Mental Health Clinician at ThedaCare Behavioral Health-Menasha. He was commenting on a study from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) which also noted that 43 percent of older adults feel lonely on a regular basis.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that 6.5 million American senior citizens suffer from depression. “Those statistics highlight the need for older adults, their health care providers, families and friends to watch for signs of loneliness and depression and promote efforts to become more socially engaged,” Griffith said. “The importance of social connections cannot be overstated.”
He noted that people experience loneliness in different ways. “Not everyone experiences loneliness in the same way. Some people have higher social needs than others,” he said. “One definition of loneliness is that it is the experience of distress over not having enough social relationships or contact with people. That perception of not having enough social connections leads to feelings of social isolation, which can lead to depression.”
The Centers for Disease Control lists these symptoms of depression: Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism; feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness; irritability, restlessness; loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable; fatigue and decreased energy; difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions; insomnia, early morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping; overeating or appetite loss; thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts’ persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not get better, even with treatment.
“Becoming depressed is not a normal part of aging; we should not accept that as being common,” Griffith said. “Rather, depression is a treatable medical condition. We know that good social connections promote good mental health, and that impacts physical health, so it’s important that older adults stay connected to family and friends.”
According to Griffith, feelings of isolation and loneliness can be relieved by something as simple as knowing you’ll be missed if you don’t make an activity. “Group affiliations are especially important,” Griffith continued. “Groups like a quilting club, book club, men’s coffee klatch, bowling team, church group, walking club, a senior citizen class at your local YMCA. It can really be any kind of regular gathering.”
Griffith cited another study that found people who heard another human’s voice via a phone call or video chat experienced a release of the naturally produced feel-good chemical oxytocin, which helps improve one’s mood. However, people who read letters, e-mails, or other notes without the experience of hearing another person’s voice did not have the oxytocin release.
“That shows the im-portance of actually talking with another person,” Griffith said. “Letters and electronic communications are won-derful ways to connect. They don’t offer the same feeling of connectedness as hearing someone’s voice. Call your parents, grandparents and other important elders; you’ll be giving them a great experience.”
Griffith said that social isolation is serious because it leads to increased risk of mortality, depression, dementia, falls and increased likelihood of hospital admission.
Griffith shared that var-ious experts on aging offer these tips to help seniors stay engaged: Keep active; exercise is important; be open to making new friends, and have an attitude of openness; become involved at a local senior center, YMCA, or other community activity group; connect with aging, disability, and social services resources in your county; learn to use a computer to keep connected with family and friends; learn how to use video chat or other social interaction apps.
Griffith noted that transportation often becomes a problem as seniors age and losing mobility is a critical time in an older person’s life. He said that when older adults can no longer drive themselves to activities, it is essential that they become familiar with the transportation services available in their community and also enlist the help of family and friends.
“We’re facing what’s being called a silver tsunami,” he said. “As the baby-boomer generation ages, the need for services for older adults will increase. My hope is that need will result in societal changes that will provide more transportation services as well as other senior services that will help people stay connected and prevent loneliness.”