July 29, 2019

Social Isolation, Living Alone, and Aging

author  photoBy Karen Sternheimer

If you live alone, you do not necessarily experience social isolation. That’s a good thing, because social isolation can have adverse health effects, including cardiovascular disease, depression, and even Alzheimer’s disease, according to the National Institute on Aging.

Maybe you don’t live alone and would like to carve out more time to spend by yourself. If you live with family members or roommates, having time alone might be a rare treat. Even if you do live alone, you do not necessarily experience social isolation if you regularly spend time with friends, family, or others. Social engagement could be informal social time or involve participation in organized activities through community groups, religious groups, and so on. Work is another way in which we might be engaged with others regularly.

Social isolation impacts older people more, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. The older we get, the more of our waking hours are likely to be spent alone. People under 40 spend on average 3.5 hours a day alone, compared with 4.75 hours for those in their 40s and 50s. Adults over 60 spend an average of 7 hours alone.

Perhaps this is not surprising; the older you are, the more likely you are to be retired, and the less likely you are to have children in your household. What is interesting is how being alone becomes more connected to gender as we age: women in their 60s spend 16 minutes more alone on average than men, but women in their 80s spend nearly two more hours alone than men.

A big part of reason for this difference is that women are more likely to be widowed than men, and therefore more older women live alone as a result. Older adults who live with a spouse spend about half as much time alone as their similar-aged counterparts. According to the report, adults over 60 living without a spouse spend about 10.5 hours alone, while those living with a partner spent about 5.3 hours alone each day (the study counted a partner as a spouse, whether the couple was married or not.)

The study highlights a central concern:

Medical experts suspect that lifestyle factors may explain some of this association – for instance, someone who is socially isolated may have less cognitive stimulation and more difficulty staying active or taking their medications. In some cases, social isolation may mean there is no one on hand to help in case of a medical emergency.

My mother-in-law, now living alone in her 80s, is a great example of the study’s findings and its warnings. She is recently widowed after 61 years of marriage, during which she raised three children in a modestly-sized home. The oldest and youngest children are fourteen years apart, so she spent 32 years raising kids—probably not affording her much time alone until very recently.

This in itself has been a big adjustment. My father-in-law had been retired for decades, so her daily schedule and activities were planned in conjunction with his. She has several friends, but her closest friends now live out of town. She regularly participates in religious services and is in a prayer group, but she says that most of the activities are geared for families with young children.

We have tried to encourage her to seek out additional types of activities, including a movement class geared for elderly people led by a physical therapist, but she is reluctant to try something new. She is also uncomfortable driving to new places and is not tech-savvy enough to use a ride-sharing app. Although we make sure we see her each week and check in with her daily, this is not enough to offset her newly expanded free time.

She recently experienced a medical emergency and could not call 911, but fortunately was able to text her children to tell them she needed help. It took some time for them to get an ambulance to go to their mother’s address since the system is set up to locate the caller, not a third party. Fortunately she is recovering and now has a medical alert bracelet, but she was shaken by the experience. This was not the first time she had suffered from this illness, but it was the first time since her husband passed away that she experienced it by herself.

Although each person’s experience is unique, my mother-in-law is not an isolated case. According to the Pew study:

People ages 60 and older currently account for 22% of the U.S. population – 73 million in all. It’s estimated this share will rise to 26% by 2030, fueled by the aging of the Baby Boom generation. The well-being of older adults has become a topic of much interest both in the United States and in other developed nations, particularly as it relates to social connection.

As our population ages, these issues will become more and more widespread. A solution for some might be senior independent living facilities, but for many people this is cost prohibitive (the median cost nationwide is about $2,500 per month, but where we live it is $4,300 a month). What do you think might be done to address social isolation as people age?

(For further reading, see sociologist Eric Klinenberg’s book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.)

Comments

Thank you, Karen! It is very interesting research for me as I live alone, but I do not feel lonely at all. It was interesting to read about the connection between gender and age.

I am a university student and now I write an essay about Loneliness, that's how I found your nice article - I was looking for some data and researches (by the way, for some free essay samples on different topics you can click here to find out more - https://eduzaurus.com/free-essay-samples/) Sometimes I think that maybe something wrong with me, because I spend a lot of time alone, and I do not need anybody around... I can go to the cinema alone and I feel comfortable about that. Of course, I regularly spend time with friends, family, and colleagues at work... So I need some time for me only, that's the way how I feel rested.

Thank you for this article! It makes me think about a lot of things!

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