More older Americans are living alone in their homes, but a startling number of those seniors are experiencing social isolation and dementia symptoms. The results of a decades long study from the University College London on the impact of loneliness and isolation has shown that both loneliness and infrequent contact with friends and family can, independently, shorten a person’s life. Living alone may be more dangerous than we thought.
It may not come as much of a surprise that nearly 90% of people over age 65 want to stay at home for as long as possible, according to a 2011 survey by the AARP. Living at home and staying in a familiar community may offer benefits to seniors’ emotional well-being—but research indicates that a staggering number of seniors who should be receiving assisted living care services are still living at home—in many cases, alone. To some of us, the answer may seem obvious: make the move to an assisted living facility where social activity, health monitoring and medication management is all included. However, moving to a senior care facility can be an emotional and difficult decision, particularly if your loved one is not keen on moving. For more information on the topic, read our guide to assisted living vs. in-home care.
The Administration on Aging reports that about 29%, or 11.3 million older adults lived alone in 2010. The percentage gets even higher for those over 75: almost half (47% ) of women aged 75 and older lived alone. For the oldest old—centenarians, who have lived to age 100 or older—about a third live alone, according to U.S. Census data.
At the same time, it’s estimated that over 12% of seniors 65 and older—more than 5 million—need assistance with long-term care to perform activities of daily life (Kaiser Family Foundation). Some estimates are even higher. Those seniors who are low-income or live in poverty are even more likely to live at home rather than in a facility, even if they require more care. The numbers for individuals with Alzheimer’s or dementia are, quite frankly, startling: of the 60-to-70% of seniors with dementia living in the community, 25% live alone, reports the Alzheimer’s Association. 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.”
If we want our loved ones to remain safe and healthy, it’s important to make sure their environment is appropriate to their physical needs—particularly if they’re showing early signs of cognitive impairment. If you notice that your loved one 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 senior nutrition is of critical importance. Warning signs that living alone is no longer safe for an older adult: