The oldest seniors today are the generation that parented the baby boomers. They have a lot of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an average of seven family members to help keep them active, healthy and engaged.
But the baby boom generation is facing a different situation as they enter their own senior years. Many boomers are aging without children or a spouse. The American Geriatrics Society says the boomers risk social isolation, and warns, “Baby boomers are at particular risk for becoming unbefriended, since more than 10 million boomers live alone and as many as 20 percent have no children.” Experts also have termed these seniors “elder orphans,” “solo agers” or “kinless seniors.”
Several factors have combined to create this situation:
More baby boomers are divorced or never married. The divorce rate for older people has more than doubled in the past 25 years, and more older adults than ever are living alone.
The baby boomers had fewer children on average. Many had no children at all. Today, a young child might be the only grandchild for four grandparents and perhaps some bonus stepparents, along with great-aunts and great-uncles.
Baby boomers often moved away from their parents’ hometown — and so did their own children. This means less socializing among the generations. To remedy this, many boomers are moving to live near their grown children — yet in the process, they’re leaving old friendship networks behind.
And then there’s our modern life, which by many accounts is less conducive to forming friendships. We now spend less time socializing in person, and more time chatting online. And this may sound familiar: “Go out to a movie or concert? Nah, I’ll stay home and binge watch something on my big screen TV.”
For many of us, our social lives tend to revolve around our workplace, leaving a big hole when we retire. Health challenges that are common in later life can also interfere with our ability to maintain social connections.
Calling this a serious public health problem, University of California, San Francisco experts say up to half of seniors today report feelings of isolation and loneliness. Loneliness raises the risk of many health problems, including depression, stroke and heart disease. University of Chicago expert Dr. John Cacioppo says the negative impact of loneliness can harm seniors as much as smoking or obesity! And neurologists have used brain imaging to show that our brains perceive loneliness in much the same way as they do physical pain.
What can today’s seniors do to remain connected and to maintain social ties?
Find opportunities to spend more time with others. Check out clubs, groups, classes and exercise programs in your area. Learn what the senior center has to offer. Attend your faith community or a group of like-minded people exploring spiritual issues. Above all, volunteer! Volunteering is one of the best ways to make friends and spend meaningful time with others.
Cultivate your own social group. Go out of your way to build new friendships and nourish old ones. Some seniors today are forming “intentional families,” a throwback to the communes of the 1960s. Friends are important for healthy aging. “Friendships become even more important as we age,” said Michigan State University psychology professor William Chopik. “Studies show that friendships predict day-to-day happiness and ultimately how long we’ll live, even more so than spousal and family relationships.”
Move to a senior living community. Today, many seniors are enjoying the social benefits that come from living in an independent living or assisted living community. There, they not only find a lot of friends to choose from, but also the support they need if health challenges make it harder to be socially engaged, delivered by staff who have a passion and an affinity for older adults. If this seems like a good lifestyle for you, consider making the move sooner than later, so you can begin growing an enduring social circle in your new home.
The information in this article is not meant to take the place of your health care provider’s advice. If you are experiencing loneliness and depression, share this information with your doctor.