Social Isolation and Loneliness: Major Risks Factors for Older People

Senior sitting alone on a park bench of a city street.

Social isolation and loneliness are major concerns for older people in general but have particular significance for older people who are blind or low vision, as detailed in a recent article on VisionAware.

What Do We Mean by Social Isolation and Loneliness?

Social isolation has two components: physical and social. It occurs when people are unable to connect due to physical distance and/or have few individuals with whom to interact.

Loneliness, on the other hand, is the subjective, “feeling”  part of being alone or separated, due to the lack of social relationships. People can live in the same house and still “feel” lonely.

A Few Facts to Consider:

Social isolation and loneliness present life-threatening health risks.

Older adults are at a higher risk for social isolation and loneliness due to changes in their health and social connections that occur during the process of growing older.

According to the 2020 Profile of Older Americans, twenty-seven percent of older people lived alone (2021). Women were almost twice as likely to live by themselves. Life changes such as widowhood can leave women more vulnerable than men. (Beal, 2006).

Further, vision loss is a major risk factor for women. As noted in Dr. Khator’s VisionAware article, more women than men are likely to have eye disease and to have untreated refractive errors. She further notes that women are also more at risk for dry eye syndrome due to hormonal imbalances from menopause (n. d.).

Other Key Risk Factors for Social Isolation and Loneliness Cited

  • Dual sensory loss
  • Memory loss including forms of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease
  • Functional disability which limits a person’s ability to socialize
  • Difficulty getting around
  • Loss of family and friends – one’s social network                                
  • Disruptive life events (such as a move to a different residence),
  • Bereavement (perhaps the most significant immediate cause of social isolation and loneliness
  • Illness and poor health
  • Retirement  (Donovan & Blazer, 2020).

As noted in the social isolation article, “The effects of vision impairment may restrict opportunities for social activities and social interactions.” (Sensory Loss, para. 2) People may feel uncomfortable around a person with vision loss, not knowing what to say. Transportation options are limited. Using a phone may be difficult for a person who is new to vision loss. With all of these losses and inability to connect, the world becomes much more limited.

Higher Risk for Medical and Mental Health Conditions

The National Institute on Aging indicates that social isolation and loneliness also are associated with higher risks for medical and mental health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, dementia, and even death (2019).

Further, Varma et al. (2016), using data from the  Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), found that individuals who are blind or low vision are at higher risk of these chronic health conditions as well as unintentional injuries, social withdrawal, depression, and mortality.

What Can Be Done to Lessen the Risks of Social Isolation and Loneliness?

As noted in the article, many interventions have been undertaken with some or limited success including: 

  • Social facilitation (including technology)
  • Exercise
  • Psychological therapies
  • Health and social services
  • Animal therapy
  • Befriending
  • Leisure and skill development

Additional research on possible interventions is needed including those for older individuals who are blind or have low vision.

Read More–Strategies for Older People with Vision Loss

For older people with vision loss support groups are an excellent option/opportunity to reduce social isolation and loneliness. 

References

Administration for Community Living. (2021). A 2020 profile of older Americans. Retrieved from https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2020ProfileOlderAmericans.Final_.pdf

Beal, C. (2006).  Loneliness in older women: A review of the literature. Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 27(7), 795–813. https://doi.org/10.1080/01612840600781196

Donovan, N. J. & Blazer, D. (2020). Social isolation and loneliness in older adults: Review and commentary of a national academies report. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 28(12), 1233–1244. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jagp.2020.08.005

Khator, P. (n.d.) Women and eye health. VisionAware. Retrieved from Women and Eye Health – ConnectCenter (aphconnectcenter.org)

National Institutes on Aging. (2019, April 23). Social isolation, loneliness in older people pose health risks. National Institute of Health. Retrieved from https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks

National Institutes on Aging. (2021, Jan 14). Loneliness and social isolation — tips for staying connected. National Institute of Health. Retrieved fromhttps://www.nia.nih.gov/health/loneliness-and-social-isolation-tips-staying-connected

Orr, A.L. (n.d.) Social isolation and loneliness among older adults and their relationship to vision Loss, VisionAware. Retrieved from Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Adults and Their Relationship to Vision Loss – VisionAware.

Varma, R., Vajaranant, T. S., Burkemper, B., Wu, S., Torres, M., Hsu, C., Choudhury, F., & McKean-Cowdin, R. (2016). Visual impairment and blindness in adults in the United States: Demographic and geographic variations from 2015 to 2050. JAMA Ophthalmology134(7), 802–809. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2016.1284



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