Managing Chronic Loneliness When Aging: 23 Strategies

Chronic lonelinessChronic loneliness can affect us all at any point in our lifetimes, but it can be a significant challenge for many older adults as they age.

Loneliness affects mental health and has profound effects on overall wellbeing (Atwood et al., 2019).

It is a difficult topic to talk about, as it is tinged with stigma and shame, and people who experience it often feel that there is something wrong with them (Cohen-Mansfield & Eisner, 2020).

However, it is a common condition that is becoming more and more concerning (Jovicic & McPherson, 2020).

In this article, we explore the effects of chronic loneliness and how to address it, giving you practical strategies to support your aging clients.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

The Effects of Chronic Loneliness on Mental Health in Seniors

Chronic loneliness has been found to significantly impact the mental health of seniors (O’Rourke et al., 2018).

As we age, we may experience changes in our social circles due to factors such as retirement, loss of loved ones, or physical limitations, which can contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness. This sense of chronic loneliness can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and lead to a decline in overall wellbeing (Richard et al., 2017).

Chronic loneliness in seniors is associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress (Mushtaq et al., 2014). Sleep disturbances and decreased motivation are also common consequences, further diminishing quality of life.

In addition, loneliness can heighten the risk of substance abuse as individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their feelings of isolation, potentially exacerbating existing health challenges among seniors (Ingram et al., 2020).

Even more alarmingly, prolonged loneliness in seniors has been linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and a higher likelihood of premature death (Luo et al., 2012). The adverse mental and physical health effects underscore the urgent need for interventions to address loneliness among older adults (Renwick et al., 2020).

Learn more about the effects of chronic loneliness in Olivia Remes’s TED talk.

How to get rid of loneliness and become happy - Olivia Remes

6 Chronic Loneliness Prevention Strategies

Implementing strategies to foster social connections and support networks can significantly enhance the wellbeing and longevity of seniors (O’Rourke et al., 2018).

Strategies such as community programs, volunteer opportunities, and technology training can facilitate social engagement among seniors, ultimately promoting a sense of belonging and improving overall health outcomes (Chen & Feeley, 2014).

By implementing such preventive strategies, communities can create supportive environments that promote social connections, enhance wellbeing, and reduce the risk of chronic loneliness among seniors (Cattan et al., 2005).

Taking proactive measures to address loneliness improves the mental and emotional health of older adults and fosters a more inclusive and connected society (Elmer, 2018).

We recommend a holistic, community-based approach that includes some or all of the following strategies.

Promote social connections

Encourage seniors to maintain and cultivate relationships with friends, family members, and peers. Providing opportunities for social interaction through organized events, clubs, and support groups can help combat chronic loneliness and isolation.

Volunteer programs

Assist seniors in engaging in volunteer opportunities within their communities. Volunteering provides a sense of purpose and fulfillment and facilitates social connections with others who share similar interests and values.

Community activities

Organize a variety of recreational and educational activities specifically designed for seniors, such as exercise classes, art workshops, book clubs, educational clubs, or gardening groups.

These activities promote socialization and provide opportunities for seniors to engage in enjoyable and stimulating experiences.

Intergenerational programs

Facilitate interactions between seniors and younger generations through intergenerational programs, such as mentoring initiatives, intergenerational daycare centers, or shared learning activities.

These programs foster mutual understanding, reduce age-related stereotypes, and create supportive social networks.

Transportation assistance

Address transportation barriers by providing seniors with accessible transportation options so they can participate in community events and social gatherings.

Access to reliable transportation helps seniors maintain social connections and prevents feelings of isolation due to limited mobility.

Mental health support

Offer mental health resources and support services, including counseling, therapy, and support groups, to help seniors effectively manage mental health challenges and build skills and resilience.

Providing access to professional support can empower seniors to address underlying issues and develop coping skills.

Download 3 Free Positive Relationships Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients to build healthy, life-enriching relationships.

Managing Loneliness for Widows & Widowers: 7 Tips

Losing a spouse can be an incredibly challenging experience, often leading to feelings of profound grief and loneliness (Goodkin et al., 2001). This is especially isolating when we don’t understand the grieving process and the people around us don’t know how to support us.

In this TED talk, Nora McInerny shares insights about some of the realities of grief and how to navigate it.

We don't "move on" from grief. We move forward with it

A proven approach to effectively managing grief and its potentially associated loneliness can be found in the form of positive psychology practices that now offer hope for a more connected and less lonely future (Crăciun, 2023).

By fostering gratitude, finding purpose, and seeking support, widows and widowers can manage chronic loneliness with resilience, cultivating a fulfilling life after the loss (Daly et al., 2019).

Try the following tips for managing loneliness in grief.

Practice self-compassion

Be kind and compassionate toward yourself, especially during moments of loneliness and grief. Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend in need.

Engage in meaningful activities

Pursue activities that bring meaning and purpose to your life. Whether it’s volunteering, pursuing a hobby, being with family, or participating in community events, engaging in activities that align with your values can provide a sense of fulfillment and connection.

Cultivate conscious connections & supportive relationships

Consciously seek out connection and supportive relationships with friends, family members, or support groups who can provide comfort, understanding, and companionship during difficult times.

Building a real sense of connection within and around you can help alleviate feelings of chronic loneliness.

If you’d like to learn more about how cultivating deep connections helps to combat loneliness, you may want to listen to Brené Brown’s interview with Vivek Murthy on the Unlocking Us podcast.

Focus on strengths

Identify your personal strengths and positive qualities and focus on leveraging them to overcome challenges. Recognizing your strengths can boost your self-confidence and resilience in the face of adversity.

Engage in positive self-talk

Challenge negative self-talk and replace it with positive self-talk, such as affirmations and encouraging messages. Remind yourself of your strengths, accomplishments, and the love you shared with your spouse.

Practice gratitude

Cultivate a daily gratitude practice by focusing on the things you are thankful for in your life, no matter how small. Expressing gratitude can shift your mindset toward positivity and enhance your overall wellbeing.

Engage in acts of kindness

Perform acts of kindness for others, whether it’s volunteering, helping a friend in need, or simply offering a listening ear. Acts of kindness benefit others and boost your own sense of wellbeing and connectedness.

By incorporating these activities into your life, you can cultivate resilience, find meaning and purpose, and navigate the challenges of loneliness with greater strength and positivity (Michael & Cooper, 2013).

Remember that healing takes time, and it’s OK to seek support from others as you journey toward healing and growth.

5 Activities to Reduce Loneliness in Your Aging Clients

Group walks for the elderlyAs we strive to enhance the wellbeing of our aging clients, integrating activities that foster social connection and fulfillment into our therapeutic process can be very helpful (Stewart et al., 2001).

By offering or helping your clients access some of the following, you can offer meaningful experiences that combat chronic loneliness and promote holistic health among your senior clients.

Support groups

Support groups provide a safe space for clients to share experiences, receive empathy, and build meaningful connections with peers facing similar challenges (Windle et al., 2011).

Through shared understanding and mutual support, these groups offer companionship and alleviate feelings of loneliness.

Educational groups

Educational groups offer opportunities for intellectual stimulation and social interaction, fostering a sense of purpose and connection (Mann et al., 2017).

By engaging in learning activities together, seniors can form new friendships and combat feelings of loneliness.

Group exercise classes or outdoor walks

Group activities that promote physical activity have health benefits while also providing opportunities for social interaction and engagement. There are many positive effects of nature, and a group walk in nature may improve mental wellbeing.

Creative workshops or art classes

Arts and crafts groups allow seniors to express themselves artistically and bond over shared interests. Fostering creativity can be a healing process and a catharsis to pent-up grief.

Intergenerational programs

Programs that pair seniors with younger individuals foster mentorship relationships and mutual learning experiences.

By helping your clients access these activities, you will address their loneliness and help them learn new skills and cultivate a sense of purpose, resilience, and fulfillment, thereby promoting holistic wellbeing (Bessaha et al., 2020).

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Using the Power of Technology Against Loneliness

Technology for the elderlyHarnessing technology can offer transformative solutions for combating chronic loneliness, especially among seniors (Rai et al., 2022).

Video-calling platforms like Skype and Zoom enable regular face-to-face connections, bridging geographical gaps and alleviating feelings of isolation.

In a similar way, social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram can broaden social networks and facilitate the formation of interest-based groups. If used responsibly, these can foster a sense of community and belonging. We recommend caution, however, as these do not replace the value of real connections, and it has been suggested that they may in fact exacerbate loneliness if used heedlessly (O’Day & Heimberg, 2021).

Online communities, forums, and support groups tailored to older adults can provide virtual support and companionship (Leavitt et al., 2020). These platforms offer a space for seniors to connect, share advice, and engage in discussions on a wide range of topics, reducing feelings of isolation. Virtual events and classes provide opportunities for social interaction and lifelong learning, keeping seniors engaged and mentally stimulated.

In order for seniors to benefit from these opportunities, they may need training and support regarding the practicalities of the technology involved. Technology training programs empower seniors to navigate digital platforms confidently, enabling them to stay connected with loved ones and access support networks. This boost in agency and aptitude can also boost self-confidence and, as a result, wellbeing.

Digital groups build connections across diverse communities and allow isolated individuals to connect with a helping community eager to assist, interact, and answer questions.

By embracing these technological advancements, communities can empower seniors to combat loneliness, stay connected with others, and access essential resources and support networks, thereby enhancing overall wellbeing in aging populations (Mann et al., 2017).

5 Support Resources for Social Isolation in Old Age

Overcoming chronic lonelinessSupport resources for social isolation in old age are crucial for addressing the unique challenges such as chronic loneliness faced by seniors (Noone & Yang, 2022).

Here are several types of resources that can help combat social isolation:

Community centers

Some communities have senior centers or community centers that offer a variety of programs and activities for older adults. These centers often host social events, classes, and support groups, providing opportunities for seniors to connect with peers and engage in meaningful activities.

Helplines and hotlines

Helplines and hotlines provide confidential support and assistance to seniors in need. These services may offer information, referrals, counseling, and crisis intervention, serving as a valuable resource for seniors experiencing chronic loneliness or isolation.

Aging-in-place programs

Aging-in-place programs offer services and support to help seniors remain independent and connected to their communities as they age. These programs may include home visits, social activities, and assistance with daily tasks, promoting social engagement and wellbeing.

Meals on Wheels

By offering friendly interactions and regular check-ins from volunteers, meal delivery programs like Meals on Wheels provide nutritious meals and serve as a vital lifeline for seniors, combating social isolation (Thomas et al., 2016).

Faith-based organizations

Many religious or faith-based organizations offer support and fellowship opportunities for older adults. Seniors can participate in religious services, prayer groups, and community outreach activities, finding connection and support within their faith communities.

By accessing these support resources, seniors can combat social isolation, build meaningful connections, and improve their overall quality of life in old age. As it can be difficult for lonely seniors to reach out, it’s important for communities to raise awareness of these resources and ensure they are accessible to all older adults who may benefit from them (Giebel et al., 2022).

17 Exercises for Positive, Fulfilling Relationships

Empower others with the skills to cultivate fulfilling, rewarding relationships and enhance their social wellbeing with these 17 Positive Relationships Exercises [PDF].

Created by experts. 100% Science-based.

PositivePsychology.com’s Resources

We have several resources that will help you and your clients overcome chronic loneliness.

You may want to start with some further reading from our blog section, including How to Overcome Loneliness According to Psychology, which does exactly what it says it does. It provides an explanation of what loneliness is and how to overcome it, and it goes on to provide relevant resources and books that you may find helpful.

Clients having to deal with grief and loneliness could benefit from the How I Can Reshape My Future worksheet, which provides guidance for those dealing with loss.

Moving Forward From Grief is a similar worksheet, also encouraging the client to consider the future.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others build healthy relationships, check out this collection of 17 validated positive relationship tools for practitioners. Use them to help others form healthier, more nurturing, life-enriching relationships.

A Take-Home Message

Chronic loneliness is fast becoming a very worrying epidemic across all demographics. One group that is particularly susceptible is older adults and seniors. Life changes such as retirement, bereavement, and illness, as well as age-related diminishing strength, ability, and vitality, all contribute to higher risk factors for isolation and loneliness.

There is hope, however, with growing awareness about the risks and effects of this condition. Seniors have access to and are encouraged to engage with resources both within their communities and online to combat isolation and loneliness.

These resources are being made more accessible through advances in technology, and seniors now have the opportunity to have more regular contact with family and friends who may be far away and to engage with online support services and social networking groups.

This in turn provides promise for more connected and engaged communities and lowers the risk of chronic loneliness in this vulnerable group.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Implement strategies to foster social connections and support networks, such as participating in community programs, volunteer opportunities, and engaging in activities designed for seniors like exercise classes, art workshops, or book clubs.

Support groups, intergenerational programs, and transportation assistance can also help maintain social connections.

CBT has been identified as one of the most effective therapies for reducing loneliness. Meta-analyses and systematic reviews show that psychological interventions, especially those involving CBT, significantly reduce loneliness (Hickin et al., 2021).

Fostering social connections, engaging in meaningful activities, practicing self-compassion, and leveraging strengths and positive self-talk. Volunteering, cultivating supportive relationships, and performing acts of kindness are also effective strategies.

Engage in meaningful and enjoyable activities, maintain and cultivate social connections, practice self-compassion, and participate in volunteer programs or community activities. Utilizing technology for social interactions and accessing support resources like community centers and helplines can also enhance wellbeing.

There are many reasons why some desire to be alone more as they get older. Mostly, these reasons relate to changes in social circles due to retirement, loss of loved ones, or physical limitations, which can contribute to feelings of isolation. Additionally, seniors might experience a shift in social needs and preferences, seeking more solitude for personal reflection.

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