Quad Cities, IL/IA

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Understanding Social Isolation


By Kate Brunk

Social isolation among older adults is a growing concern. AARP estimates that nearly 20 percent of adults 65+ experience social isolation. By 2030, one in four residents of Illinois will be 60 or older. Social isolation is a looming social and health challenge for our communities, but it is often misunderstood.

Social isolation is defined not only by the number of connections one has to others but also by the emotional satisfaction and support one feels they receive from those connections. Individuals who have limited contact with others, like those who are homebound, can be at high risk for this type of isolation. Homebound individuals include those who experience mobility and health issues that prevent them from safely leaving their homes, but they can also include those who are no longer able to drive and do not have access to other forms of transportation.

Individuals who have a lot of contact with others may be isolated if they feel unsatisfied with or unfulfilled by those connections. Individuals living with their families or in long-term care facilities can be at high risk for this type of social isolation. While individuals who live with family members may love and appreciate the time they get to spend with their families, they may feel isolated if they lack friendships with their peers.

There are also individuals who experience both types of social isolation, not enough connections, and the connections they do have are not emotionally satisfying enough to meet their needs.

Identifying risk factors and symptoms of social isolation early is important because combatting it once someone is isolated can be very difficult. Social isolation can lead to self-isolation where an individual loses the will and desire to try to make new connections with others. A few common risk factors include struggling financially, being an informal caregiver, and experiencing the loss of a loved one.

Individuals who have low incomes or struggle to meet their financial needs may choose not to participate in activities with others because they simply cannot afford to. Getting together with friends at a coffeeshop or a restaurant comes with a financial cost. Public spaces, like libraries and senior centers, offer great alternative places to meet.

Informal caregivers include individuals who are caring for spouses or adult children with disabilities and those raising their grandchildren. Some informal caregivers provide care fulltime and others have employment and provide care outside of their paid-work hours. It can be very difficult for these caregivers to prioritize their own health and social needs over their caregiving duties. Caregiving can be stressful and isolating even when a caregiver chooses to provide care rather than hiring someone else. Support groups and community programs for caregivers hosted by community organizations and libraries offer essential support to informal caregivers.

Experiencing the loss of a spouse, sibling, or friend can have a big impact on the way individuals feel connected to others and their communities. That loss may come when a loved one dies, but this feeling of loss can also occur when a loved one transitions to a long-term care facility or experiences memory loss. Grief support groups hosted by community organizations or churches can offer vital resources at these times.

One of the most important things to remember when we think a loved one may be socially isolated is that bullying them will not help. When we criticize a loved one for not being more involved or not getting out of the house more often, we undercut our ability to help support that individual. Patience, empathy, and persistence are important tools, but asking how a loved-one feels and what they need is the first step. Listening to them and respecting their answers can open the opportunity to address their social isolation together.

For more information about social isolation, including an assessment quiz, visit the AARP’s Connect2Affect resource at https://connect2affect.org/. To learn about services and support in your community, contact the Rock Island County, IL senior information services provider at 309-793-6800 or the Scott County, IA senior information services provider at 563-324-9085.