Why Loneliness is as Dangerous as 15 Cigarettes a Day for Older Adults

February 24, 2022

Loneliness kills. For seniors, loneliness can be as large of a health risk as obesity, smoking, or alcoholism.

Senior loneliness and isolation are not issues that should be ignored or taken lightly. A Statistics Canada study from 2009 showed that around 20% of seniors aged 65 and older felt lonely at least some of the time. For seniors aged 85 and older, this figure was 25%. This is a problem that worsens with age and it can have major consequences. Loneliness and isolation not only pose major threats to the physical health of seniors but can have severe effects on mental health as well.

Let's explore what senior loneliness and isolation is and why it poses such a health risk to older adults. Then, we discuss how Welbi’s resident experience platform was created with the mission of reducing loneliness and isolation for residents in senior living communities.

What does senior loneliness and isolation mean?

First, it’s important to understand that loneliness and isolation have different definitions. A study by McMaster University defines isolation as a state that arises from having too few or no social relationships. For example, someone could be considered isolated if they live alone, have no close relatives, and never visit anyone.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is the subjective perception of having insufficient social relationships or not enough contact with people. A lonely person may wish for more friends and feel like they have no one to confide in or ask for favors. 

While isolation and loneliness are related, they are distinct. Some seniors may prefer to be alone and do not experience loneliness. On the other hand, some seniors may feel lonely even if they are not socially isolated from others. 

The loneliness and isolation that seniors experience is usually a result of low-quality social relationships or a lack of these relationships entirely. However, there are other risk factors that may make them more vulnerable. These include living alone, lacking transportation, living with chronic health conditions, lacking contact with family, and losing a sense of community.

What are the dangers of senior loneliness and isolation?

Isolation and loneliness can severely impact the health of seniors. One study found that lonely seniors have a 59% higher risk of physical and mental health decline and a 45% greater risk of death. Other researchers have suggested that loneliness can be as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.

Loneliness can affect physical health in many ways. Isolated seniors are more prone to serious illnesses like chronic lung disease, arthritis, and impaired mobility. Feelings of loneliness can cause seniors to engage in other unhealthy behaviours such as overconsumption of alcohol, excess eating, and smoking as a way of coping with the loneliness. Loneliness can also cause seniors to spend more time indoors and avoid physical activity. This lack of exercise can lead to increased rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other issues.

Loneliness and isolation can have major effects on mental health as well. A Dutch study found that seniors who suffer from loneliness have a 64% higher risk of dementia. Depression is also very common in lonely seniors. Overall, loneliness and isolation pose a major risk to the health of seniors and can greatly reduce their quality of life. 

Is loneliness a problem in senior living communities?

One reason why older adults make the move to senior living communities is for increased social contact. Living alone is a risk factor for loneliness and isolation, so communal living can help seniors feel more connected to others. Senior living can provide older adults with opportunities to form new friendships, pursue hobbies and activities that interest them, and stay involved in their communities. 

Unfortunately, making the transition to senior living can increase loneliness and isolation for some older adults. They may have to move far away from friends and family and struggle to make connections in their new environment. The community may offer few activities that interest them, which results in the resident spending more time alone in their room. While some residents may enjoy spending time alone, having little social contact can lead to isolation.

Staff in senior living communities can play a large role in the social health of their residents. They can socialize with residents, help them make friends, engage them in activities, and connect with them in meaningful ways. However, they are often overworked and understaffed. Though they want to improve their residents’ quality of life, they may not have enough time and resources to engage with every resident. High staff turnover in senior living also contributes to this problem, as new staff members need to start from scratch to build relationships with residents. 

Our mission to prevent senior loneliness and isolation

At Welbi, we are on a mission to help reduce loneliness and isolation in senior living communities. We do so by empowering communities to deliver personalized resident experiences. Welbi’s platform was built  in collaboration with senior living professionals so they can offer person-centered care to their residents and help them maintain a higher quality of life. 

Welbi’s resident experience platform addresses senior loneliness and isolation in two key ways. First, the platform provides life enrichment professionals with a host of time-saving features to automate tasks and streamline workflows. With digital tools for taking program attendance, designing activity calendars, documenting resident information, and more, Welbi gives life enrichment teams an extra 25 hours a month. This means less time in an office and more time engaging with residents.

Next, Welbi provides life enrichment teams with the tools they need to connect with residents and offer engaging, personalized programming that meets their needs. Welbi’s resident profiles make it easy for teams to access information about their residents’ interests, hobbies, and life stories. Staff can use this data to find out what a new resident has in common with others in the community and set up an introduction. They can also use it to plan exciting activities and outings that will draw residents out of their rooms to socialize. Welbi analyzes resident data and provides recommendations for activities that meet the needs of older adults in your senior living community. 

To ensure that no resident is socially isolated, Welbi also alerts staff when residents are in need of engagement. The Overview section of the platform provides teams with a list of residents who have gone the longest without any interactions captured in Welbi. Teams can review this list daily so they can prioritize engaging specific residents to prevent loneliness and isolation.

To learn more about how Welbi can help reduce senior loneliness and isolation in your senior living community, contact us, or read our blog on enhancing resident engagement with the help of a resident experience platform.

Katie Stewart

Katie is a member of Welbi’s Customer Experience team! She has a background in communications and recreation and is passionate about older adults, exercise, coffee and people.

Holly Mathias

Holly is a member of Welbi’s Marketing team! She has a background in communications and marketing, and is a compassionate individual who loves team work, story telling, and wellness.

Wendy Riopelle

Wendy is a student in the Honours BA in English program at the University of Ottawa, where she has won numerous awards for her writing.

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