Senior Mental Health

Loneliness Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

Loneliness Can Be Dangerous to Your Health

In this article

It’s all over the news. Scientific studies state loneliness is as harmful as cigarettes. What does that mean for seniors? And how can we make sure Grandma and Grandpa have companionship so they aren’t victims of isolation?

Frontida Assisted Living Facilities, such as the Frontida of Kimberly, a Senior Living and Memory Care Community, provide you with posts like this one to help you live your best life.

1. “(Hey There) Lonely Girl”: We Are Made for Community

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness
and the feeling of being unloved.”
—Mother Teresa

From the very beginning of humankind, it proved clear: “It’s not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). And as much love as Golden Retrievers offer, that quote didn’t refer to owning a bunch of pets.

We were created to live with other people.

  • Remember the Tom Hanks’ movie, Cast Away? Desperate for company, the main character draws a face on a ball. “WILSON!”
  • And the pilot episode of the Twilight Zone, “Where Is Everybody?”—scientists discover a man gone crazy in an empty town. “We are able to fix any problem but the need for companionship.”
  • In fact, one of the greatest punishments in prison is solitary confinement.

Relationship isn’t just a nicety. It’s a necessity. It’s why we always cry at the end of every single Incredible Hulk episode. He has to walk off alone to that incredibly sad music.

So if Grandma’s recently lost Grandpa? Her best friend moved away? She can’t get out and visit others? This pandemic isolated her from everyone?

The effects of that loneliness could be exponentially more than we expect, in ways we’d never imagine.

2. “One Is the Loneliest Number”: Get Out of Your Head—and Talk to Others

“There is nothing more lonely or terrifying
than feeling unheard.”
 —House of Cards

Ever found the same thought circling around in your head over and over again, like a hamster on his wheel? You hear something on the radio, and it upsets you. You read something on social media, and you wonder if it’s true. The thoughts and worries build themselves to Mount Vesuvius proportions.

Thankfully, when you talk it over with someone else, your brain finally rests. The other person helps you get perspective on reality. The mountain returns to a molehill.

But what if no one’s around to listen?

That mental loneliness increases stress levels, blood pressure, and all around anxiety. None of which helps you health-wise. An evening like that once in a while won’t kill you.

But if Grandpa lives on his own day after daywithout daily interactions with othersthat mental stress throws more and more cortisol (the stress hormone) into his system, leading to weight gain, weight loss, hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, and even cognitive decline and dementia.

Grandpa needs more conversation than yelling at the political reporters or the football refs or just stewing in his own mind. He needs people who can interact.

3. “Table for One”: Don’t Wanna [Eat] All by Myself…

“He who eats alone chokes alone.”—Anonymous

We eat differently by ourselves than we do with others. We may eat more. We may eat less. We may eat more junk. (That whole ice-cream-out-of-the-container therapy for a lonely Friday night.) After all, who wants to take the time to cook a healthy, balanced meal if there’s no one to share it with.

The same is true for sleep. No one around to notice we’re going to bed at two in the morning? or sleeping in till noon?

And of course, loneliness can also increase alcohol consumption and smoking.

If you notice weight changes in Grandma or food rotting in the fridge… If the wine bottle seems way too empty… or you call her at four in the afternoon and she’s already in bed… she may need more frequent dinner guests for companionship.

4. “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”: Workout Buddies

The trouble is not that I am single and likely to stay single,
but that I am lonely and likely to stay lonely.
—Charlotte Brontë

It’s easier to tango with two, right? And we’re always much more likely to get to the gym if someone’s going to meet us.

The same is true for seniors. That’s why Senior Sneaker clubs exist all over the country.

Keeping active is just as important for those over 65 as those under. And it’s not just about muscles. Exercise builds physical, emotional, and mental health.

But if Grandpa’s lonely? 90 times out of 10, he’ll probably keep himself company with Netflix or ESPN. Besides, if he’s starting to struggle with dementia, it may not even be safe for him to exercise alone. A quick walk could turn into a silver alert.

So, whether Gramps needs a spotter for those bar bells (or his trip around the block) or just enjoys an accountability partner for getting off the couch, exercising together is always more effective than going it alone.

Can he get out with those friends?

5. “Everybody’s Got Somebody but Me”: Our Need to Be Needed

When you have nobody you can make a cup of tea for,
when nobody needs you,
that’s when I think life [feels] over.
—Audrey Hepburn

As Grandma and Grandpa grow older, it’s tempting to think you honor them by insisting they sit and do nothing. But they still have emotional needs.

And, just like the rest of us, one of those is a need to be needed. A need to belong.

Are they part of a team?

Without that purpose, that feeling of connection, it’s easy to become despondent. Depressed. Grieving that life’s changing too fast and leaving them behind. The less they have to do, the less they get up and moveAnd we already said how important exercise is. The more depressed they are, the more they eat, sleep, drink improperly.

Loneliness doesn’t just make us sad. It makes us question our entire being. And the physical, emotional, and mental effects domino on itself.

6. “Feeling Blue Bayou”: The Power of Touch

That thing that I’m most worried about is
 just being alone without anybody to care for
or someone who will care for me.”
—Anne Hathaway

Infants cannot survive without human touch. If they’re deprived of it, their actual growth development levels decline, causing all sorts of disabilities including RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder).

The thing is, that need for human touch doesn’t change just because we’ve grown up.

Touch slows down the heart rate, calms the nervous system, and lowers blood pressure as well as that stress hormone that we mentioned before, cortisol. Touch also increases the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin, which helps us emotionally bond.

So it’s no surprise that touch has a profound correlation between anxiety, depression, and stress. But it also effects our immune system responses and our ability to fight diseases.

In other words, no matter how old grandma is, touch is important. She needs hugs, handshakes, even times of holding her hand. If she’s comfortable with it, a backrub or a foot massage might feel heavenly.

Hard to receive if she’s alone all the time.

NOTE: It should go without saying, but we are obviously talking about appropriate touch! As beneficial as healthy touch is to us all, abuse of any kind is just as detrimental.

7. “Ain’t No Sunshine (When She’s Gone)”: Laughs are Meant to Be Shared

“The worst part of holding the memories is not the pain.
It’s the loneliness of it.
Memories need to be shared.”
—Lois Lowry

It’s proven. Laughter really is good medicine.

  • It increases your intake of oxygen,
  • floods your system with endorphins (another feel-good hormone),
  • stimulates your heart, lungs, muscles (that laugh-till-your-stomach-hurts/ stitch-in-your-side can be a good thing),
  • and even increases connections in your brain.
  • For those with Parkinson’s, laughing during the day improves sleep quality
  • And some studies show that “happier people are less likely to develop tau tangles and amyloid plaques” (abnormalities that show up in the brain with Alzheimer’s).

In fact, laughing is so important to our health that in the 1300s (yes, seven hundred years ago,) Henri de Mondeville actually added humor as part of his post-operative therapy.

But it’s really hard to laugh by yourself.

Of course, there are those moments you’re reading or watching something and you literally LOL. But even then, it doesn’t last long if you can’t share it. Or soon you feel silly.

Jokes are meant to be shared. After all, “Knock, Knock” with no one to say “who’s there” is more a punch in the gut than a punchline.

8. “(Don’t Want to Be) All By Myself”: Knowing Someone’s Got Your Back

“Two are better than oneIf either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up… A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
—Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NIV)

The buddy system is as old as preschool. Field trips. The local swimming pool. Walking home from school. We drill it into minds of the young. But, in the celebration of independence, forget it for ourselves.

Thing is, no matter our age, we all need a buddy.

When you’re all alone, or feel like you are, fear rises, anxiety builds. All those fallen-and-can’t-get-up commercials, the phone call scams preying on seniors, the “service workers” knocking on the door saying they need to check for a gas leak…

Talk about a recipe for an influx of cortisol. And heartburn. And muscle tension.

It helps to know you aren’t alone. That someone is there to be your wingman. That you don’t have to be all by yourself.

Does Grandma have that relief?

9. “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”: —Not Gender Specific

“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”—John Cheever

We often think loneliness is a “woman thing.” That ladies are relational, and men just want to be left alone.

Don’t believe it.

Science magazine’s article “How Loneliness is Killing Men” sheds light on loneliness increasing in males.

Why? When men lose friends, either because they move away or pass away, it’s harder to make new friends. Especially because of that “men want to be left alone” view. The “Lone Ranger.” And even more because of the culture’ current push for the man-cave. Sitting in front of the tv or a video game. Alone.

The article quotes a Brigham Young University study: “Long-term social isolation can increase a person’s risk of premature death by as much as 32 per cent.” 

More proof that being lonely is more dangerous than cigarettes. No matter your gender.

10. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”: Adding Years to Their Age

“A guy needs somebody―to be near him. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody. Don’t make no difference who the guy is, long’s he’s with you. I tell ya, I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”—John Steinbeck

Put all these problems of loneliness together, and what’s the result?

It makes you older.

As it increases risks of other diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and Alzheimer’s, it literally damages the body’s biological clock.

Being unhappy raises cortisol, causing chronic inflammation, which in turn damages vital organs and cells. This decreases activity, meaning more sitting around doing nothing, not getting healthy exercise, not connecting with others. Which raises cortisol… Yep, a bad cycle.

On the other hand, community creates “feel-good hormones” like endorphins and enkaphalons. Those hormones lower blood pressure, relax muscles (potentially meaning fewer falls), and even build immunities (fighting cancer, flu, heart disease)…. All combining to help grandparents feel more their age. Or even younger.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”: Assisted Living Can Help

“A friend knows the song in my heart
and sings it to me when my memory fails.”
Eve, Donna Roberts

You’ve seen the problem. You know Grandma and Grandpa are lonely.

  • They live in their home by themselves, with only the random neighbor to talk to.
  • Or they live with you, but everyone’s so busy, running to work, school, events, that Grandma and Grandpa feel alone in a crowd.
  • They’re starting to stoop more, walk slower, talk in circles…

What can you do?

A caring assisted living facility may be the answer, especially if it’s a place like Frontida, where community is prioritized every day—even in the midst of a pandemic.

  • Meaning plenty of time to talk to each other
  • Time to exercise together
  • Time to laugh, cry, and act your ageor younger.
  • Daily knowing there are plenty of people around who have your back.

In other words, there’s no need to walk alone.

Check out what Frontida Senior Living Communities have to offer.

Thank you to Almeida from Pixabay for the featured image

For more help, read these other posts about emotional issues like depression and grief.

Elizabeth Daghfal
• 8 min read

Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at