The holiday season is upon us, and many people are planning in-person festivities. For some older adults, however, the holidays can exacerbate existing loneliness, particularly for those who have outlived family, friends, and finances and become isolated or those whose families live far away or are estranged.
Recent research reveals that nearly half of Americans aged 60 and over report feeling lonely, discouraged, or depressed. The negative impacts of social isolation and loneliness are well documented: increased risk of dementia, obesity or malnutrition, heart disease, stroke, and premature fatality from all causes – health risks likened to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Older adults also have an increased likelihood of comorbidities that can cause or intensify social isolation or loneliness, such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments. Other factors contributing to social isolation include experiencing ageism or lack of opportunity to engage with or contribute meaningfully to society.
In the Puget Sound area, it is estimated that about 60,000 elderly and disabled people living in group homes never have outside visitors.
Are you or a loved one at risk for social isolation? Take this assessment to find out
Social isolation and loneliness among older adults are significant public health issues that tend to be overlooked and under-reported. Luckily, a number of recent public health campaigns like Far from Alone urge awareness, action, and advocacy designed to increase a person’s social connectedness.
Preventing social isolation is vital to older adults’ mental and physical well-being.
The AARP has declared the social isolation of older adults an epidemic – a growing one, as baby boomers continue to live longer. Researchers have long known about the health benefits of “social capital”—the ties that build trust, connection, and participation.
Social capital is especially important for older adults, because health and existing social capital generally decline with age. Indeed, the negative health consequences of chronic isolation and loneliness – while detrimental at any age – are especially so for older adults.
How you can help
Your time is your most valuable asset in supporting older adults experiencing loneliness – and volunteering may stave off social isolation in your own life, too. In study after study, researchers have found that people who volunteer lead longer, healthier, happier lives.
As the holidays approach, consider making a one-time or longer-term commitment to enriching the life of an older adult and preventing social isolation:
ElderFriends connects volunteers with isolated adults for regular one-on-one visits (currently by phone or video) in Puget Sound, as well as group show-and-tell zooms with adults with disabilities.
Friend to Friend America is a Seattle-based organization that recruits and matches volunteers to visit (one-to-one) with elderly and disabled persons who live in nursing, assisted living, retirement, and adult family homes for the purpose of forming friendships. The volunteer friends make a commitment to visit at least twice a month for a minimum of one year:
“We are excited to match our vaccinated volunteers with lonely and isolated seniors as the communities allow visitations again. The entire world now understands what it means to be lonely and isolated.” – Friend to Friend America Executive Director Lisa Slavik
Love for our Elders envisions a more loving, empathetic future by helping older people feel loved. Volunteers write letters to elders around the world who are experiencing loneliness, isolation, or loss.
Seattle’s Chicken Soup Brigade needs volunteer drivers to deliver groceries and fresh meals to clients throughout King and Snohomish counties.
Phinney Neighborhood Association’s Hot Meals Program volunteers help by picking up food donations, hosting food drives and preparing, cooking, serving, and cleaning up weekly meals.
Sound Generations’ community dining volunteers give back to the community by assisting with providing hot, nutritious meals to our older adult population throughout King County at more than 20 senior centers.
Put it on your calendar: National Letter to an Elder Day is February 26, 2023. Everyone is encouraged to write a hand-written message of love to an older adult experiencing loneliness.
Wish of a Lifetime is a national program working to shift the way society views and values our oldest generations by fulfilling seniors’ dreams and sharing their stories to inspire those of all ages. Volunteers are needed in a variety of roles, including with Cupid Crew 2023, an annual Valentine’s Day tradition of delivering love notes and roses to seniors in group homes.
Get your older adult loved ones involved with a local senior center! Research shows that compared with their peers, senior center participants have higher levels of health, social interaction, and life satisfaction.
Staying active is a significant factor in preventing disease, reducing the risk of falls, improving cognitive function, and supporting positive well-being in seniors, according to a CDC report. Family and community members can take steps to support seniors in this endeavor by providing encouragement, education, and companionship – for example, during walks together.
Elder care resources for UW employees
When supporting an adult relative or loved-one you may need consultation, education and help finding care. UW employees and students have access to several UWHR resources that can help:
- The Back-Up Care Advantage Program provides backup care for your adult relative when regular arrangements fall through unexpectedly.
- Years Ahead is offered through Bright Horizons and connects you with elder care tools and resources — including search tools and referrals. To access this service, locate the “Find Eldercare Resources” card under care programs for your family from the link.
- UW’s Employee Assistance Program connects you with an elder care professional who can help you:
- Clarify current health concerns
- Develop a personalized care approach
- Learn how to advocate for loved ones
- Locate direct-care services
- Find options for further assessment and treatment
- Address your own stress
- For faculty, staff and librarian retirees from the UW, as well as their spouses or partners, the UW Retirement Association develops programming designed to foster a purposeful retirement through connection to the UW community, educational opportunities, and giving back in ways that are meaningful. Their “Ducks in a Row” video series includes seminars on:
- Aging well
- Advance directives for healthcare
- Estate planning
- Hearing aid technology
- Funeral options
Consider making a one-time contribution or setting up payroll deduction to one of our UWCFD member organizations working to end older adult isolation:
Friend to Friend America (charity code 0316405): has a mission to end loneliness in the lives of seniors, one senior at a time, “Friend to Friend,” by recruiting and training volunteers in the community to visit lonely and isolated seniors.
Homage Senior Services (charity code 0337214): is the largest provider of critical services for seniors and people with disabilities in Snohomish County. Through 28 programs in food and nutrition, health and wellness, social services, home repair, and transportation, 28,000 people are served annually.
Pike Place Market Foundation (charity code 0316443): Raises funds to purchase food, childcare, medical care and housing services for the low-income and elderly people of the Pike Place Market neighborhood.
Senior Services of Island County (charity code 0316431): Programs serve elderly, disabled and low-income citizens. Services include congregate and home-delivered meals, transportation, housing, adult daycare, information and assistance, employment and senior activities.
Wallingford Community Senior Center (charity code 0316445): WCSC fosters healthy, secure, positive aging, while building community across generations. Varied programs promote healthy active living, social connection transition support, technology access and literacy, lifelong learning, and civic involvement.
Meals on Wheels People (charity code 1480747) has a mission to enrich the lives of older adults and assist them in maintaining independence by providing nutritious food, human connections, and social support. They also use their expertise and capacity to serve other nutritionally at-risk populations.
Generations Aging with Pride (charity code 1482583): empowers older LGBTQ adults to live with pride and dignity by promoting, connecting, and developing innovative programs/services that enhance belonging and support, eliminate discrimination, and honor older LGBTQ adults.
Sound Generations (charity code 0316444): Promotes the emotional, social and physical well-being of seniors, their families and caregivers by providing information and services such as Meals on Wheels, Senior Centers, home repair, transportation, community dining, and healthy aging.