Photo: Erin McLeod, CEO of Friendship Centers

Aging in the Right Place: Loneliness Is the Darkest Secret of Aging

Posted on November 01, 2019 by Michael Moore Jr., Herald-Tribune Media Group

Preparing for the prospect of living alone can put you ahead of the curve when it comes to preventing feelings of stress and depression.

Most of us don’t plan on spending our retirement by ourselves, but all it takes is for the kids to move away or the unexpected death of a spouse, and suddenly, we can find ourselves in a precarious situation.

About 12 million Americans over the age of 65 live alone, according to a 2016 report by the Pew Research Center. Even those who don’t live alone often find themselves in solitude, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which show that older adults were alone for more than half of their day.

This is a problem.

“Our founder, Brother Geenen, always said that loneliness and isolation are the malnutrition of the elderly,” said Erin McLeod, CEO of the Friendship Centers.

In addition to the hygiene problems often associated with isolation among older adults, loneliness is linked to several health concerns, including high blood pressure, heart disease, a weakened immune system, and cognitive decline. A 2019 study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine found that loneliness can increase the likelihood of mortality by 27%, while another study likened a lack of social connections to doing as much damage to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Thankfully, there are many things that people who live alone can do not only to offset the negative impacts of loneliness but hopefully to make their lives richer and more vibrant. And it all starts with leaving the house.

“I would say finding something you like to do is a good first step. It can be anything; whether that’s fishing, painting, or just going to different coffee shops, it really doesn’t matter. Just start getting out of the house more and doing things you enjoy because, inevitably, you will find someone else who enjoys doing that same thing,” said Suzy Brenner, executive director of The Paradise Center.

Places like the Friendship Centers and The Paradise Center offer a variety of activities, from exercise and dance classes to mahjong and bingo, so visiting them can be a good way to link up with like-minded people.

If you are a family member who lives nearby, swing by for more visits. If you are far away and that’s not possible, try to call more often or take advantage of technology and set up a video chat. A simple gesture like this could make a bigger difference than you think.

If you are an older adult living at home, make sure that your needs are being met. If you’re not sure where to start, ask for help. If you are having problems with hearing, vision, or transportation, it can make connecting with others that much more difficult.

“You don’t think about it until you’re in that position, and then it becomes intimidating and overwhelming, but there are a lot of people in the same boat. It all starts with putting one foot out the door,” said Brenner.

This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.

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