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Monday, October 8, 2018

Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults

What is Loneliness and Social Isolation?

Loneliness and social isolation are in direct contrast to the basic human need for love and belonging.  Social isolation effects everyone at any age but continues to become more prevalent in older age and can be detrimental to both physical and mental health.

All over the globe, social isolation rates continue to increase, particularly in older adults.  According to a recent AARP report, social isolation and loneliness is present in more than 8 million people in America over the age of 50.  According to the study, 35% of respondents said they were isolated and 45% responded they were lonely for 6 or more years (AARP, 2017).

Loneliness and social isolation is complex to say the least.  Regardless of the definition, social isolation and loneliness can contribute to the deterioration of overall physical and mental health.  Those 60 and older who identify themselves as being lonely were 59% more likely to experience a decline in their ability to perform basic activities of daily living. (Perissinotto et al., 2012)

Some of the most staggering data indicates that loneliness was as robust predictor of early death as alcoholism, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and stronger predictor than obesity or a sedentary lifestyle. (AARP, 2017)

Identifying Loneliness and Social Isolation in Older adults

There is no direct or easy way to address social isolation and loneliness.  It is important to understand the various factors older adults face that puts them at risk for loneliness.  Risk factors can be grouped into these categories –

Events –  exp. Loss of a spouse/partner, close friend, living alone, life transition

Physical – exp. Sensory or mobility losses or chronic illness

Psychological –  exp. Mental health problems ie. Depression, dementia, etc.

Socio-economic – exp. Low income, limited financial resources, rural living

Professionals working with older adults need to be aware of these factors and be able to identify loneliness and social isolation even in healthy clients to slow the progression of social disconnect.  Screening questionnaires are very important in identifying these factors.  The UCLA loneliness Scale and DeJong Gierveld Loneliness Scale are examples of questionnaires for loneliness and can be found here -

Creative and Artful Engagement

Participating in creative and artful activities can offer older adults more opportunities to become more active within their community and decrease social isolation and loneliness.  Engaging in creative activities have been shown to stabilize heart rate, regulate hormone levels, and increase hormones associated with feeling good.  In addition, decreases in pain level, improved mood, improved physical functioning, and positive neurological changes found when older adults participate in various art forms (Cohen 2000).

Engaging individuals in the arts throughout the life course may serve as primary prevention tool in combating and preventing social isolation and loneliness before negative health effects can take hold.

Check out the full article by Tobi Abramson in our latest CSA Journal 70 – Special Edition in the member portal here.

Information on the Author 

Tobi Abramson, PhD, has worked for the past 30 years as a licensed psychologist to improve the mental health of older adults and their families. She is currently the Director of Geriatric Mental Health at the New York City Department for the Aging and a Fellow of The New York Academy of Medicine and consults, conducts training's, and writes about geriatric mental health.


J. De Jong Gierveld and T. Van Tilburg, Research on Aging 2006, 28, 582-598.
AARP Foundation (2012). Framework for isolation in adults over 50. Retrieved from
AARP Foundation (2017). A profile of social connectedness in olderadults. Retrieved from
Cohen, G. D. (2000). The Creative Age. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY.
Penninx, B.W., Guralnik, J.M., Ferrucci, L., Simonsick, E.M., Deeg, D.J., & Wallace, R.B. (1998). Depressive symptoms and physical decline in community-dwelling older persons. JAMA, 279(21), 1720-1726.
Perissinotto, C. M., Stijaci Cenzer, I., & Covinsky, K. E. (2012). Loneliness in older persons: A predictor of functional decline and death. Arch Intern Med, 172(14), 1078-1083/

Blog posting provided by Society of Certified Senior Advisors