Living alone can be life threatening as we age

By Frank & Earnest

It’s official – a recent study has found people who are lonely and socially isolated will literally die sooner than those who are living in communities. With an increasing number of Australian seniors living alone, this is an issue which needs to be addressed. The results of a decades long study from the University College London on the impact of loneliness and isolation has shown both factors can actually shorten a person’s life. The study has proved when people end up living on their own, especially when they are older, the impact of this social isolation and the consequent loneliness has on their lives is huge.

The numbers for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia worldwide who are living alone is staggering: of the 60-70 per cent of seniors with dementia living in the community, 25 per cent live alone, reports the Alzheimer’s Association.

The link between living alone and being socially isolated and dementia is quite clear and yet also complex. Studies have found those people who are more socially active are less likely to develop dementia. Of the people who do develop some type of cognitive decline, this symptom in itself makes it harder for them to keep socially active, so this is the time they need family and friends the most.

One of the biggest hurdles to social isolation is that most people aged over 65 want to stay at home for as long as possible because living at home and staying in a familiar community offers benefits to a seniors’ emotional well-being. But the problem is, if a senior person is living at home on their own, receiving assisted living care, this only means their physical needs are being met.

Social needs not being met
The issue is, their social needs are not being met. When you live alone and don’t go out much for any interaction with other people and your social skills reduce. As the University College London study shows, social isolation and loneliness are linked to a higher rate of mortality.

The study reports:  ‘We found that mortality was higher among more socially isolated and more lonely participants.’

It may seem the solution is obvious for people living alone – they need to make the move to an assisted living community where social activity, health monitoring and medication management is included. However, sometimes the older person doesn’t want to move and at other times, they have no-one close to them to help them make this major move at a difficult time in their life.

Low-income seniors more likely to live alone
Those seniors who are low-income or living in poverty (see our story published earlier called Australia slips badly in global ranking for poverty rate of older people) are even more likely to live at home rather than in a facility, even if they require more care.

Andrew Steptoe, a professor of psychology at University College London, says he was surprised by the results of the social isolation study: “Both social isolation and loneliness appeared initially to be associated with a greater risk of dying,” he says. “But it was really the isolation which was more important.”

Living alone becomes unsafe
If seems obvious, but if we want those close to us to keep in good health, it’s important to make sure their environment is appropriate to their needs — particularly if they’re showing early signs of cognitive impairment. 

If you notice someone close to you needs help with daily activities such as eating, bathing and dressing, they may have decreased cognitive functioning associated with early or middle stage dementia. Even in their own home, the combination of poor eyesight and minor safety hazards can put seniors at risk for falls, broken hips and even death.

Keeping track of physical symptoms, mental health, and nutrition is of critical importance. Warning signs that living alone is no longer safe for a senior include: not taking their medication properly; forgetting appointments; unable to keep up with daily chores and housekeeping; poor nutrition; and unable to keep up with finances and paying bills.

If you see these signs, it could mean you need to help this senior person make the move to an assisted living community before it’s too late.