Loneliness Spreads Among Older Adults

by Lois Etienne on December 30, 2010

in Senior Health and Safety

Q. I think my 83-year-old widowed mother is lonely, but I’m not sure what to do about it.  It seems that she has fewer friends all the time.  Is she at any kind of health risk as a result?

Not only can loneliness isolate your mother and keep her from forming meaningful relationships, it can also spread, according to a study by researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of California-San Diego and Harvard.  A team of scholars found that lonely people tend to share their loneliness with others.  Gradually over time, a group of lonely, disconnected people moves to the fringes of social networks.

Seattle Washington Senior“We detected an extraordinary pattern of contagion that leads people to be moved to the edge of the social network when they become lonely,” said University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, leader of the study and one of the nation’s leading scholars of loneliness.  “On the periphery people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

Before those relationships are severed, they transmit feelings of loneliness to their remaining friends, who also become lonely.  Because loneliness is associated with a variety of mental and physical diseases that can shorten life, Cacioppo said it is important for people to recognize loneliness and help those people connect with their social group before the lonely individuals move to the edges.

People’s chances of becoming lonely were more likely to be caused by changes in friendship networks than changes in family networks.  Research also shows that as people become lonely, they become less trustful of others, and a cycle develops that makes it harder for them to form friendships.

Try to encourage your mother to cultivate more interaction with others, which could lead to meaningful friendships and relationships.

Why not suggest that she get involved at a local senior center.  Or consider an in home care company such as Home Instead Senior Care.  Companionship service is among the company’s most requested services.  CAREGivers, who are often seniors themselves, share many of the same interests as their clients.  For just a few hours a week your mother could have the kind of interaction that may ward off loneliness and keep her healthy and happy.

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