Three elderly women are sitting at an outdoor table and smiling

Liam – February 19, 2019

As I’ve watched family members and friends get up there in years, I’ve said to them and myself, “Getting old is not for the weak.” Aging is hard. Even if you’re in tip-top shape, noticing the body not holding up like it used to is a bitter pill to swallow—as if the aged need more pills to swallow. And it’s not just the body taking the toll; the mind’s wellness is at risk, too. Loneliness, specifically, is a major risk for seniors, and if loneliness sinks its fangs in too deep, it can wither even the most physically and mentally fit of them. But there are ways to fend it off.

As we get older, friends and family leave us behind. Our kids move away, our friends pass on. Our spouses die. If we live long enough, we are likely to feel like the last person standing, which is a little ironic because isolation and loneliness increase mortality, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A common stereotype is that old folks constantly complain about their aches and pains. The truth is, collective griping can do some good. When a person doesn’t have someone to talk about their ailments—perceived or real—they risk missing the clues and cues that should lead them to seek medical attention. Furthermore, the PNAS also found that social isolation is directly correlated with chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility and depression.

Loneliness, particularly in the elderly, can lead to physical problems as well as emotional struggles.

The lonely may also be at greater health risk because, without caring (or nosy) neighbors and protective adult children nearby, they may find it difficult to get to their physician appointments or receive medical attention in a timely manner.

Feelings of loneliness and social isolation can lead to poor cognitive performance and dementia, according to University of Chicago neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. John Cacioppo. He says that we are a social species and that our health and lives are “threatened when [we] find [ourselves] on the social perimeter.” And yet, the adage that misery loves company challenges this, because loneliness is contagious. Negative vibes beget negative vibes.

I’m painting a dark picture, I know. I’m sorry. Take a moment. Soak up some positive feelings with your light therapy light. Good news is on the way.

Loneliness is not an absolute. Yes, we all face the inevitable changes that come with aging, but we don’t have to do it alone. We can age with honor, surrounded by friends and family who can support us along the way.

Engaging in group activities, like classes or a weekly/monthly lunch, book or movie group, goes a long way toward alleviating loneliness. (My wife Kim’s grandmother has been in the same book club for 60 years!) Embracing technology can help, too, so that seniors can communicate with distant family, like kids and grandkids, over Skype or FaceTime. No matter how it’s done, staying involved is a sure-fire way to stay included and avoid the worst of loneliness.

The Danish Home’s 2018 Summerfest was dedicated to chasing the blues away!

My Fafa Izzy understood this when she helped found the Danish Home of Chicago. Have you seen the monthly activity calendar at the Home? It’s stuffed to the gills with just about everything social beings need to keep our minds and bodies as sharp and able as possible. Exercise classes, games, movie screenings, time earmarked for discussing current affairs, arts and crafts, field trips and unique events around Chicagoland are all on the monthly agenda.

Living with fellow residents in a small, intimate community like The Danish Home can be extremely beneficial to seniors battling isolation. In fact, The Danish Home is so committed to combating loneliness, the entire focus of our 2018 Summerfest was dedicated to “Chasing the Blues Away“!

Now that’s something to smile about.