Old and Alone: Aging in a Lonely World

lonely seniors

By: Michelle Okwundu

In our world of high-speed social networking and uber-fast communication, lies a hidden world of people who we rarely hear nor talk about. Most of these people live in solitude and are generally seen as highly dependent on the healthcare and social welfare system. These categories of people include veterans - people who have fought wars, built communities, established organizations but are now too old and weak to actively engage in the society.

Ria, a once cheered and loved dancer is now a 90 years old woman with hurting knees. She is frustrated at how she has gone from being the center of attention to becoming totally unnoticed. “I don’t know anybody today except people living next door to me and I don’t see them very often now. It hurts to be left alone,” she says. The documentary House calls paints the perfect picture of the devastating effects of social isolation; where there was once cheers and laughters, silence now prevails. For this once attractive young dancer, walking to the doctor’s office is an achievement on its own.

What Causes Social Isolation?

Social isolation is eating deep into the fabrics of our society and our seniors are at the center of it.  A recent study revealed that up to 50% of those aged over 60 are at risk of social isolation and approximately one-third of older people will experience some degree of loneliness later in life. With more people living longer and having fewer children, social walls made up of spouses, children, friends, colleagues from work and social contacts from other involvements, slowly breakdown. Spouses and friends die, children move away from home, retirement sets in and disability impedes mobility, making isolation an almost inevitable occurrence as we advance through life.

According to an analysis we are living in a different world today than that of generations ago. The era of neighborhood picnics, regular gatherings of extended family, church socials and other communal events is rapidly disappearing. If I want to grab a quick dinner after work with a friend, I need to schedule it several days in advance, because the world has become busier and will only get worse. We have moved away from agrarian forms of communal living, to a more tightly-packed but less emotionally connected form of urban living. Thus, grandmother no longer lives upstairs; instead, she’s hundreds of miles away.

Besides the digitalization of our age, social isolation in the elderly is made worse by chronic illness and functional limitations, lack of access to community services and programs such as accessible and affordable transportation, affordable and suitable housing and care options, loss of sense of community and the fear of falling. The implication of this as surveys have found is the increased frequencies of common mental disorders (depression and anxiety) and a decline in physical health, spiraling into a cycle of unrecognised and undiagnosed health needs.

Coping with Depression

These seniors according to research cope by praying, watching TV, listening to music, having crying spells, talking to what is left of family or friends, and hoping to die. Some others cope by further avoiding others, sleeping a lot and indulging in alcohol.

Experts have suggested various strategies to combat this threat such as:

  1. Encouraging seniors to remain involved in community and religious activities which helps to increase social support. This might be unrealistic for homebound seniors with mobility limitations.

  2. Peer support, which involves seniors volunteering to help and support other seniors through the provision of companionship and transportation services. This however is time consuming and requires training which might be deterrent factors.

  3. Neighbours and communities have been encouraged to keep an eye on older people to help maintain connectedness. This has proved to be ineffective because everyone seems to mind their own business now.

  4. Engaging in social activities such as volunteering, exercise clubs, art and other forms of physically, mentally and socially stimulating activities have been encouraged. However, homebound seniors with functional disabilities might not be able to do any of these.

  5. Alternative housing has also been encouraged for seniors ageing in place .This involves models such as co-housing and inter-generational housing to help reduce the financial costs of living alone in a house, provide companionship, and support with instrumental activities of daily living.  The risk of  undue influence should be taken into consideration in these arrangements.

  6. The use of technology has been encouraged such as regular telephone calls by volunteer mentors, family and friends. The adoption of gadgets like tablets for communication, entertainment and news as well as more advanced technologies and robotics such as Elliq and Paro have been encouraged. Nonetheless, the use of technology by seniors could be met with challenges such as cost and illiteracy.

Is society just striving to keep our seniors alive or are we also working to improve their quality of life? We need to all be concerned about this issue because like Dr. Nowaczynski in House calls said, this could be you tomorrow.

Please drop your comments, experiences, ideas and suggestions.

Michelle Okwundu.jpg
About the Author 

Michelle Okwundu is a professional nurse who is currently pursuing a Masters of Health Leadership and Policy at the University of British Columbia, while working at Pain BC as a Health Coach. She has worked as an Occupational Health Nurse at International SOS, the world's largest medical and travel security services firm, which count nearly two-thirds of the Fortune Global 500 companies as clients. In the past few years, she has also facilitated a course at the Canadian Mental Health Association and has worked for Classic LifeCare, a Vancouver-based, family-run nursing agency.