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Loneliness is a universal experience that acts as a huge indicator of social well-being. Contrary to popular belief, loneliness is not necessarily caused by being alone; it’s caused by being without necessary interpersonal relationships. Although anyone can experience loneliness, it's a significant problem for elderly people, in particular, as it can lead to a considerably impaired quality of life.  

Though some people think that loneliness is a state of mind, the psychiatric and physical effects of loneliness are extremely real. A 2014 scientific review from the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that loneliness can lead to a variety of psychological problems.

Those psychological problems include:

Physically, loneliness can lead to:

What types of loneliness exist?

There are three types of loneliness: internal, situational, and developmental, according to Sarvada Chandra Tiwari, a psychiatrist who authored the scientific paper, “Loneliness: A disease?” They are each categorized by their causes.

Internal loneliness: This is caused by mental distress, low self-esteem, personality factors, poor coping strategies, and feelings of guilt or worthlessness.

Situational loneliness: This is caused by socio-economic status; culture; and various environmental factors, such as interpersonal conflicts, population migration, accidents, disasters, unpleasant experiences, and a discrepancy between the lonely individual’s needs and their social contacts.

Developmental loneliness: This is caused by significant separations, poverty, living arrangements, physical or psychological disabilities, social marginality, personal inadequacies, and developmental deficits.

Who is being affected by loneliness?

According to the 2016 Population Reference Bureau (PRB) report, “Aging in the United States,” the number of Americans age 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2060. Right now, there are about 46 million people over the age of 65 living in America. By 2060, that number is expected to reach over 98 million, which will make up almost 24 percent of the population.

The PRB report predicts that the demand for elder care will also increase significantly because the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple from five million in 2013 to 14 million in 2050.

In 2014, more than 27 percent of women age 65 to 74 lived alone. That number jumped to 42 percent of women age 75 to 84 and, again, to 56 percent of women age 85 and older.

Knowing these statistics, it’s important to intervene before loneliness takes its toll on the mental and physical well-being of America’s elderly population.

What can be done to minimize the effects of loneliness?

Luckily, loneliness is something that can often be overcome.

Dr. Lynn Ponton suggests elderly people who are struggling with the effects of loneliness should try to make new friends, volunteer, reminisce, take up a hobby, or adopt a pet. For those who are homebound, Ponton suggests contacting local agencies and/or places of worship to ask about home-visitation services and transportation options.

Ross Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and author based out of the Greater Chicago Area, suggests these 11 tips for battling and conquering loneliness: 

  1. Catch any attempts at self-sabotage.
  2. Replace negative thoughts with affirming messages, such as, “I am lovable the way I am.”
  3. Put yourself out there; don’t isolate yourself.
  4. Get rid of toxic relationships to make room for positive ones.
  5. Nurture your support network, even if it starts with a single person.
  6. Expand your social network; websites like meetup.com are great places to meet people with similar interests.
  7. Take risks and allow yourself to feel vulnerable.
  8. Ask for what you need; friends often respond positively to direct messages asking for help and/or support.
  9. Don’t wait for an invitation; be proactive and invite others to share in your life.
  10. Enjoy solitude; recognize the importance of being alone sometimes.
  11. Consider therapy to help you overcome self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.

If you are or someone you love is an elderly individual struggling with loneliness, consider using Elder Helpers’ search tool to connect with volunteers in your area free of cost.