Learn the difference between isolation and loneliness

It is important to note that not all seniors who are isolated are lonely and not all seniors who are lonely are alone. Medically speaking, a person is considered socially isolated if they live alone, don't belong to a group (work, volunteer organization, etc.), and interact with friends or family less than once a month. Some people choose this isolation as their lifestyle. In general, it is the quality of social interactions, not quantity, that determines if a person feels lonely.

In a recent article, Dr. Clifford Singer summarized the research on the health effects of social isolation and loneliness among seniors. He began by writing,

We are a social species. Our social networks (families, tribes, communities, etc.) enabled us to survive and thrive. But as with all human traits, there is variation in our social behaviors and needs. The fact is, most of us are psychologically and biologically “programmed” to need social networks. It is logical that social isolation may impose stress on our minds and bodies that has a significant impact on health.

He continues by noting how difficult it can be to determine if a senior is isolated, lonely, or both. He explains by saying,

Not all people experience “aloneness” in the same way. Social scientists who study isolation and loneliness have attempted to define these terms in specific ways, since a person is considered socially isolated if they live alone, have less than monthly contact with friends or family, and don't belong to a group (religious congregation, club, work or volunteer organization, etc.). Of course, some choose isolation as a preferred lifestyle. Others, likely far more in number, have isolation imposed on them through the death of loved ones, family and friends moving away, remote rural housing, recent moves to an unfamiliar city, impaired mobility, and other situations leading to depleted social networks and isolation. People in these situations may be more likely to experience loneliness and to feel isolated (perceived isolation). Research, as well as our own experience, tells us that the quality of our social interactions, more than the number of our relationships, determines loneliness.

Dr. Singer's writing indicates the importance of relationships, but also explains that for some seniors quality of companions is more important than quantity of companions. To apply this to your life, consider your loved one's social preferences. Did they find great joy in going to parties and events when they were younger? Or did they prefer a quiet night in with a few select friends? As you consider these two questions, think of ways you can keep your loved one socially active in a way that fits their personality and preferences. For example, if they've always been a social butterfly that enjoys large groups, ask them if they'd like to join a local religious community or attend a local club gathering. If they prefer small groups, ask them if they'd like to schedule small dinner parties with a few family members or friends once a week or a few times a month. Remember, it is possible for your loved one to be "isolated" but not lonely. However, a senior may also be socially involved but feel lonely. It is important to have an honest discussion with your loved one about their feelings and consult a counselor or physician for advice if necessary.

Source: Singer, Clifford. "Health effects of social isolation and loneliness." Journal of Aging Life Care 28.1 (2018): 4-8.