Social Isolation in the Senior Population and Elder Orphans
“One is the Loneliest Number,” while a hit for the musical group Three Dog Night, is used to describe a growing concern for our senior population. According to a University of California study,* more than 40% of seniors are affected by feelings of loneliness. This study separates loneliness and depression believing that seniors are affected differently depending on which they may be suffering from. The authors of the study, led by Carly Perissinotto, MD believe that while depression can be debilitating, causing fatigue and lack of motivation, loneliness can be experienced by people who are fully functional yet experiencing feelings of isolation.
The Baby Boomer population, those born between 1946 and 1964, represents a large cohort of individuals who are turning 65 at rate of 10,000 a day around the world. As this cohort continues to age, expecting to total 88.5 million by 2050, it will be necessary to address their needs, recognize their loneliness and address it appropriately to allow them to function and live full lives.
Dr. Perissinotto believes that by looking at the individual and asking the appropriate questions these issues can be addressed. “We don’t think we can change genetics, but we can intervene when someone is lonely and help prevent some functional decline,” she said. She further believes that connecting with others is important and the key to continuing to function and enjoy life.
Those individuals who maintain active social lives and continue to have contact with others will tend to do better than those individuals who have poor or underdeveloped social skills. “People my age need to appreciate who they are,” she said. “Everyone has some skill and if they want to expand their horizons, they need to figure out what they can use to pull themselves back into the stream of life.”
In an online article by AARP** elder orphans are defined as individuals who have no immediate family members in their lives. An excellent example is the widow who may be the last surviving of her siblings and has had no children, or any immediate family members may live too far away or may not be involved with the senior. One in five seniors is an elder orphan.
The American Geriatrics Society has developed guidelines recommending how health policy should be addressed to meet the specific needs of this population. Sadly the authors of these guidelines refer to these elder orphans as “unbefriended” older adults. This situation could pose a crisis as the population continues to age through to a peak in 2050 at which time the potential number of caregivers to individuals 80 and over declines to a 3:1 ratio. Today’s ratio is 7:2 potential family caregivers to each individual 80 years of age and over.
The take away is from this is that baby boomers and seniors should prepare for their aging process. Thought should be put into the prospect that an individual may have to age alone. An individual should make sure pertinent paperwork is in order, think about where they want to age, and ensure to develop a social network of individuals who think like them. Developing such a social network can help to decrease the risk of loneliness as those we love either pass away or draw away. As we continue to age it is likely that additional creative solutions may become the norm. These may include adopting into a family, bringing in a live-in caregiver or communal type living such as multiple seniors sharing a home.