Over the years, many songs have been written about loneliness and feeling alone, and there is a reason why this message resonates with so many of us. Almost everyone has experienced those feelings at one time or another and loneliness is very common among older adults. There are real health consequences to this social issue; loneliness and social isolation (the absence of fulfilling relationships, a sense of belonging and meaningful social contacts) can result in poor physical and mental health (1), lower quality of life (2), and even premature death (3) largely because of the strong relationship between social isolation and depression (4;5).
You don’t have to live alone to feel lonely. In fact, social isolation is especially prevalent in long-term care facilities where residents are at high risk of suffering the debilitating effects of depression and a rapid decline in their physical and cognitive abilities as a result (5;6). Research suggests that providing opportunities for residents to actively participate in meaningful social activities can help draw people together and reduce isolation (7).
While hobbies, preferences and tastes differ, it is useful to know which activities are worth signing up for, especially for people who are looking to combat or avoid depression. A systematic review of five studies sought to better understand what programs and activities are best at addressing social isolation and depression among nursing home residents (8). The study participants ranged in age from 77 to 86 years and lived in long-term care facilities in urban communities.
The activities included:
Reminiscence therapy in groups, during which participants share personal stories and memories
Women-only and men-only facilitator-led social groups
Indoor gardening programs conducted with individuals or groups
Weekly sessions incorporating Nintendo Wii® games
Daily one-hour radio broadcasts
Participants were assessed to determine their levels of depression, loneliness and various related symptoms, such as anxiety, well-being, and life satisfaction.
What the research tells us
Of all of the program options, reminiscence therapy was the most successful, significantly improving both social isolation and depression. Groups led by a program facilitator had the most value, particularly when the facilitators were well-trained (8). The effects of reminiscence therapy may even go beyond loneliness, with another review finding that it can improve quality of life, cognition, communication, and mood in people with dementia by a small amount (9).
Among other effective programs, daily radio broadcasts and men’s social clubs decreased depression and gardening groups decreased loneliness. However, it should be noted that more research is needed about effective approaches for people living in rural areas whose circumstances and isolation may be different from those in urban areas (8). Overall, effective programs are ones that are adaptable and include community participation and productive engagement (11).
So, joining a social or recreational group may be worth your while, especially if it includes a bit of a chit chat or a chin wag (12). As shown in previous studies, talking about accomplishments, reliving happy times and sharing experiences promotes self-esteem and a sense of fulfillment and comfort while helping people connect the past with the present (10).
With age comes change and loss which can bring on feelings of loneliness and despair. Spending quality time with people is an excellent antidote, one that is even more effective when some of that time is spent sharing memories of a life well lived.