Bearing in mind that you are likely reading this column on a cheery, sunny July day, I would like to broach a subject that is not so rosy. Seniors are prone to isolation, which is a harbinger to feeling blue. This can lead to poor health.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on research findings from Oregon Health and Science University. Their findings indicate loneliness among older adults has vastly increased “from about 14 percent in the 1970s to more than 40 percent today.”

To understand why, we need to mull over how quickly our society has changed.

It was only two or three generations ago that many extended families lived within arms’ reach of each other or lived under one roof. Multi-generational get-togethers and daily conversations were commonplace. Helping hands were readily available.

Remember the phone? For aging baby boomers and the greatest generation, a telephone call was the social media platform of the day. It was not uncommon to spend hours on the phone in friendly chatter, catching up on the news of the day.

Close-knit neighborhoods were integral to the social order. Neighbors gathered on porches for friendly chitchat. It was common to borrow an ingredient from a neighbor when needed for dinner preparations. These neighborhoods still exist in Seattle but they are few and far between.

Moving forward to today, we quickly realize that our one-time, traditional aspects of family living, kinship and conversation have forever changed. What have we substituted? Virtual communications.


Virtual vs. face-to-face

Do emails, text messages, and Facebook posts provide the same stimulation as face-to-face chats and replace our need for true personal contact? The research, which tracked 11,000 older adults, reports that only face-to-face interactions thwart depression in older adults. Text messages and emails are not an antidote and have no measurable effect.

These findings surprised even me, someone who works daily with aging adults. But as I began to think about it, my experience with clients bore this out; isolation is indeed more severe as one becomes older.


Imagine being old

Isolation imposed by aging comes in many forms. If you are not already a senior, for a few minutes, imagine you are. Think about factors that conspire to make your world smaller.

For instance, deteriorating health could restrict your physical activity and make you unable to drive or unable to get out of the house; consequently, your opportunities for social interaction would become limited. The loss of a spouse or contemporary would attack your sense of well-being. With each loss or restriction of activity, you would feel more isolated.

Unless family and friends take steps to counter these feelings of isolation, you could easily spiral into a state of loneliness and depression. Depression contributes to chronic illness.


Value in community

Think about your own life. To live fully and to “shine on,” we lean on those nearby. To maintain a rosy outlook, we require a community of family and friends; we need dreams for our future. It’s the warmth of human faces that make family and friends comforting.

Aging research indicates that ongoing face-to-face engagements are necessary for our well-being. Kinship is a critical component of happiness and health.

This same research discovered that with whom we have contact is also important. In-person contact with friends is found to thwart depression in those 50 to 70 years of age, but family is the elixir for those older than 70.

As family members, what actions can we take to help our aging loved-ones thrive? Take it upon yourself to be engaged on a one-to-one basis. This means visiting frequently — at least a couple times a week.

If you have siblings, divvy up the visitations. Neighbors and caregivers can chip in, visit and check on aging loved ones. If you do not live nearby, coordinate a network of neighbors, caregivers and friends who can visit regularly. Meals on Wheels and military groups can become drop-in visitors.

There is a Seattle-based nonprofit that helps seniors cope with depression. EnhanceWellness provides counseling services; it is a participant-centered motivational intervention. A team of two professionals, typically a nurse and social worker, works with an individual.


Today’s isolation

Increased longevity and our society’s structural changes have created a situation in which our seniors are becoming progressively more isolated. Increased isolation points to a looming mental health crisis and could foreshadow an accompanying blow to our seniors’ physical health.

The antidote? It’s us. Our presence and our willingness to catch up face-to-face.




MARLA BECK is the founder and president of Andelcare Inc., which provides in-home eldercare. 

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