Loneliness can be a serious problem for older adults, especially when they are far from family, friends or a close-knit community. Lonely seniors suffer adverse effects on their health, as well.
One study found lonely adults had a mortality rate twice as high as their obese peers, while another study found isolated adults over age 52 had a mortality rate 26 percent higher than their more-social counterparts.
If you or your loved one is at risk of chronic loneliness or social isolation, don't despair--there are resources to help.
One such resource is the Institute on Aging's Friendship Line, a free, 24-hour, seven-days-a-week hotline catering specifically to seniors and disabled adults.
"Most of the time we talk to someone who is just feeling those deep pangs of loneliness," says Charis Stiles, manager of the Friendship Line. "Maybe they're grieving a loss, or are sandwiched between caring for their parents, their spouses and themselves. We also see a lot of people who are struggling with the physical changes of aging and the lack of resources available to them."
The Friendship Line operates as both a "warm line" for lonely seniors who just need to talk and a crisis intervention hotline. If a senior is particularly at risk, the Friendship Line makes periodic outcalls to the senior to help prevent loneliness and depression.
Stiles says lasting friendships are not uncommon.
"It's not always the same volunteer that calls you, but sometimes friendships happen; they build that wonderful bond," she notes. "Sometimes we have people we call out to for years; sometimes we have people who call in to us for years. Sometimes people stay with us for a long time."
While some seniors may wish to be on a first-name basis with their volunteer, seniors can call in anonymously. This can be helpful for the more stoic generations less likely to reach out--and see asking for help as taboo.
"If you're hesitant to call, you're welcome to call us anonymously," says Stiles. "A lot of people take comfort in not talking to people in their social sphere or social circle."
She believes there's "something really lovely" about calling their volunteers, sharing deep feelings, and not having to worry about bumping into the person on the street or at the grocery store.
Reaching out, and knowing when to do so, is important. Stiles emphasizes many seniors call in during the early morning or sleepless nights, "when the struggle is the hardest".
If you are concerned for a loved one, call them in the morning when they wake up or at night before they go to bed. If they seem consistently troubled, it may be a sign they are experiencing depression or loneliness.
If your loved one has no social interaction, it's also a warning sign.
"Isolation is absolutely a risk factor for suicide," says Stiles.
Even if you don't live alone, you can still be afflicted by loneliness. One study found that out of 1,600 older adults, 43% said they felt lonely even though only 18% actually lived alone.
Lonely participants also had a higher mortality risk.
Using the Friendship Line or a similar service "can be one of the best things you can do for yourself and show you that you care about yourself," adds Stiles.
If you or your loved one prefers something closer to home, call the local town hall. Some municipalities have free services, such as check-in phone calls staffed by fellow volunteer seniors who phone individuals on a daily basis.
You may also wish to look into an independent living community, which would have social resources for seniors, or an adult day care service with a focus on social activities.
Additionally, you can call your local Administration on Aging branch to see what's available in your area.