Nobody relishes the thought of getting older with no one at their side to provide support, love, and laughter through good times and bad. Unfortunately, about 40% of older adults experience loneliness, while 7-17% report being socially isolated. Although these terms are often used in place of one another, social isolation and loneliness are not quite the same thing (1). Social isolation refers to an actual lack of social support and meaningful contact, whereas loneliness refers to a person’s belief that they are lacking or have lost companionship, and the negative feelings that stem from this (1;2).
Whether actual or perceived, social isolation and loneliness can have real impacts on the overall health and well-being of older adults (1;3). In fact, social isolation is linked with increased death (1;4), dementia (1;5), depression, and risk of elder abuse (6); while loneliness is associated with increased blood pressure (3;7), cognitive decline (3;8), and reducing the body’s ability to protect itself from infections (3;9).
There are many reasons why older adults may spend more time on their own—living alone, the death of loved ones, certain health conditions, and a lack of access to transportation are just a few examples (6). Fortunately, efforts are underway to identify strategies to combat social isolation and loneliness, and the worrisome health effects that come along with them (1;3;10).
What the research tells us
One systematic review explored the effectiveness of a variety of programs aimed at reducing social isolation and/or loneliness in older adults. This review found that some of these programs may help improve physical, mental (e.g. depression and mental wellbeing), and social (e.g. social support and loneliness) health in older adults who are or are thought to be lonely or socially isolated. Overall, programs that were group-based, grounded in theory, and incorporated active input from participants and social support/activity appeared to provide the most benefit.