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Assumptions vs. Reality: The Effect of Isolation on the Older Adults in Our Lives

Would you recognize the signs of social isolation if you saw them in a loved one?

People tend to assume that social isolation is simply a moment of loneliness, and that it’s easy to prevent or spot when it begins to occur. That isn’t true. Social isolation can be gradual, and it can take years for you (or someone else) to notice it.

Isolation may look like any of the following:

“Mom is busy taking care of dad, but they keep each other company, right?”

“On my fixed income, I can’t afford to meet my friends for the weekly lunches I really miss.”

“My grandfather canceled our plans to go to the drive-in movie theater. Why?”

Social Isolation: Definition and Consequences

Social isolation is the result of feeling detached physically or psychologically or being disconnected from friends and family — and it has reached epidemic proportions among older and midlife adults. According to a 2019 University of Michigan-AARP poll, 1 in 3 adults said they lack regular companionship, and 1 in 4 said they feel isolated from other people at least some of the time. That was before the coronavirus pandemic’s mandated social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The impact is devastating and can even be deadly. Social isolation puts its sufferers at higher risk for heart disease and stroke, dementia, and hypertension.

The emotional toll can be equally harmful. People often feel misunderstood by their friends and family, whose misperceptions about their loved ones can make the effect of social isolation even worse.

Assumption vs. Reality: Overcome Misperceptions and Reconnect

The assumptions we make about the older adults in our lives are often at odds with the realities of social isolation. It’s important that we not only recognize the differences but also help each other feel more connected and supported.

Assumption:

A family member who is the primary caregiver for their ailing parent or spouse is always around that person. They can’t possibly be lonely.

Reality:

Caregivers are some of the most isolated midlife and older adults, particularly when the person being cared for has dementia. In these scenarios, the caregiver is grappling with feelings of grief and loss while tending to their loved one’s around-the-clock needs.

How you can help:

Something as simple as a text, email, call, or handwritten card to acknowledge a birthday or anniversary can remind a caregiver that they haven’t been forgotten. These gift ideas are other meaningful ways to show compassion. Being sensitive to a caregiver’s struggles is key, and these tips on what to say and not say can bridge the isolation gap.

Assumption:

A friend who keeps turning down invitations to the weekly lunches or other activities you both used to enjoy must not want to spend time with you.

Reality:

According to the National Council on Aging, more than 15 million U.S. adults over 65 are economically insecure. Many retirees on fixed incomes no longer have discretionary income to spend on social activities, which can fuel loneliness and isolation.

How you can help:

Consider organizing a potluck so that everyone can contribute within their means. Suggest participating in a free or low-cost program at a public library, like a book club or meet-the-author event, and plan other activities that don’t have a cost attached.

Assumption:

A grandparent who no longer attends family functions or answers calls must be upset with their children and grandchildren.

Reality:

As they get older, many seniors have more difficulty getting around. They may be limiting their driving, especially after dark or when new locations are involved. Not wanting to be a burden, they can be reluctant to ask for a ride. Hearing loss is more widespread than diabetes or cancer and can make it difficult to understand other people, both on the phone and in person. Some people experiencing hearing loss may feel embarrassed and frustrated, leading them to withdraw from social settings. Without these once-enjoyed activities, people feel less connected to their loved ones.

How you can help:

Offer to drive your older relative to a family party or event, or suggest meeting for breakfast or lunch instead of dinner. AARP’s hearing center is filled with resources, including information on free annual screenings and tips on saving money on hearing aids.

Do you think an older adult in your life is struggling with social isolation? Take this self-assessment test on their behalf and learn ways to help them reestablish connections.

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