Loneliness is a serious health problem for older adults. Studies over the past decade have found that feeling isolated can cause depression, raise our blood pressure, suppress our immune system, hasten the signs of Alzheimer’s disease, and increase the perception of pain. Lonely people are less likely to exercise or eat a nutritious diet. A March 2017 study from the American Psychological Association even noted that people who feel lonely have a worse time of it when they come down with the common cold!
With all this evidence that loneliness raises our risk of illness and disability, could the opposite also be true? Researcher Meaghan Barlow of the Personality, Aging, and Health Lab at Concordia University in Quebec said, “We were surprised by the amount of literature that examined whether people who are lonely are more likely to get sick. Yet none of them asked the opposite question: ‘Do sick people get lonely?’”
To find out, Barlow and her team conducted a study of seniors with chronic illness, and found that illness can indeed lead to loneliness. The team urged people who are dealing with chronic illness to make social connections a priority. Said Barlow, “Putting a halt to socializing only contributes to a downward spiral. Dealing with a chronic illness shouldn’t prevent you from still trying to get out there if you can.”
The team warns of one pitfall: People with chronic conditions may blame themselves for the illness they are dealing with. Barlow said, “The fact that loneliness can lead to further complications means that measures can be taken to prevent the effects from looping back around. Finding different ways to connect with other people also means you are less likely to blame yourself for being sick.”
Another finding confirms that an ill person’s spouse or partner can’t provide all the social support they need. Said Barlow, “You can’t count on a partner to fill that gap. The quality of our social ties plays a role when it comes to coping with the effects of serious disease in later life. And just having a partner around may not be enough.”
Understanding this cycle can motivate ill seniors, their families and our public and private senior care organizations to make social opportunities a priority. Adapted activities, transportation and senior support services all help. And support groups can be of great benefit. When we’re dealing with a chronic condition, who better to understand what we’re going through than other people who are coping with the same challenges? Organizations that advocate for and serve the needs of people with health conditions often sponsor support groups—for example, the American Diabetes Association, the American Lung Association, The Alzheimer’s Association and the American Heart Association. Support groups traditionally have met in person, but today more and more seniors are enjoying virtual companionship and a real mood boost through online support groups.