Loneliness epidemic is widespread in elderly generations—we can help

Loneliness epidemic is widespread in elderly generations—we can help

Photo by Hermes Rivera

In a digital age where we are constantly connected with each other through social media and technology, loneliness is a growing public health concern. In terms of age demographics, senior citizens in our society seem to be taking the brunt of perceived loneliness, with 43 percent reporting that they feel lonely on a regular basis.

The same study, conducted by the University of California at San Francisco, concluded that people 60+ years who feel lonely have a 45 percent increase in their risk of death. This staggering statistic is a result of only one of the many studies conducted to shed light on the invasive problem of loneliness within the elderly population.

Chris Absher, president of LeeU's Adopt-A-Grandparent program and junior biblical and theological studies major, describes this epidemic as a result of skewed perspectives on what elderly people bring to the table for society.

“I think that this is largely due to America's pragmatism,” Absher said. “[In the mindset of many], only what's useful is what deserves our time, and when people get to a certain age that they're no longer contributing in a positive way at times—at least in a way that we can see clearly. Then it no longer becomes useful for us to spend our time with them.”

The effects of loneliness are widely considered harmful to anyone who experiences them. A study conducted in 2005 reported that this presence of perceived loneliness contributed strongly to depression and poor cognitive performance. And the high probability of losing loved ones and fewer opportunities for social relationships as one ages contributes substantially to this perceived loneliness.

Mental health has become somewhat of a hot-button issue in the United States recently, but in this discussion the elderly are sometimes ignored.  

Not only can loneliness affect the mental health and quality of life for seniors, but it has also shown to cause a rapid decline in physical health.

A series of studies conducted by the National Academy of Sciences discovered that the mortality rate of those in the large percentage of the elderly who experience loneliness is 59 percent higher than those who are given the opportunity to socialize with others. This is commonly attributed to the fact that seniors living alone have less access to prompt medical attention, while seniors with social contacts and attentive family members are visited and receive the medical care they need.

Sixty-seven percent of older adults who said they were lonely were either married or living with a partner of some kind. Agingcare.com attributes this statistic to the belief that the amount of relationships you have is not important. What is important, however, is the meaningfulness of these relationships. This is why students are encouraged to visit with senior citizens and to build lasting and meaningful relationships with them.

Absher noted that one way to combat this loneliness is to reach out to and visit seniors, whether they are your very own grandparents or a group of senior citizens to whom you can reach out within your community.

“The number one thing you can do is participate with programs such as Adopt-A-Grandparent,” Absher said. “We recognize that there are people in need of community but just don't have it. We're trying to be the ones who remind them that have not been forgotten by our generation and that there is someone who cares for them.”

Finding ourselves wrapped up in work, various extracurricular activities or personal relationships can unconsciously make us apathetic to the isolation the elderly may feel. This lack of attentiveness to older generations is a major factor in loneliness. As a result, there is an emerging generational gap that has wedged itself between our modern ideals and the traditions that are held close to the hearts of senior citizens.

According to psychologists from the University of Chicago, data shows that solitary seniors have a tendency to increase their own isolation by disengaging from society and increasing their own isolation.

Absher said to begin bridging the generational gap, both young and old must set aside their differences and supplant any negative attitudes they may have towards each other with benevolent respect.

“I think it starts with both sides recognizing the need to foster mutual respect because a lot of younger generations have their own stereotypes about the elderly,” Absher said. “There are elderly who care about your opinion and about the times that we're living in.”

Absher stressed the importance of realizing the treasure that can be gleaned from the life experience of those who have lived longer than us.

“They have a contribution to make to helping us navigate new issues of life,” he said. “Even the willingness just to listen to one another or taking the time to sit down with a person from another generation is an important start.”

This problem is far more realistic than we'd like to believe, and there's an urgent—but silent—call for help from the elderly community.

To get involved with Adopt-A-Grandparent, contact Chris Absher at (423) 315-0509 or cabshe00@leeu.edu.

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