Many older, lonely adults find themselves in this cycle of compounded loss, but it should never be considered the norm for this stage of life.
Loneliness and social isolation are now believed to be as dangerous to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and surpass the mortality risks of obesity. A 2017 SCAN survey of 1,000 older adults uncovered this compelling statistic: 82 percent of those 65 and up know at least one person who is lonely, yet 58 percent would be reluctant to admit it if they themselves felt isolated.
The faces of grief and loneliness are individualized and complex. But for many, it’s a vicious cycle of feeling lonely and depressed which perpetuates isolation and grief that extends beyond the usual time, said Dr. Romilla Batra, chief medical officer for SCAN Health Plan. SCAN Health Plan is a not-for-profit health plan founded in 1977 and based in Long Beach, California. The Medicare Advantage health maintenance organization is the one of the largest not-for-profit Medicare Advantage company in the United States.
Recognizing that very real struggle — and the cyclical, non-linear aspect of it — is huge in terms of helping the individual, rather than pushing him or her further down isolation’s road.
Here are a couple of things not to say to someone isolated, according to experts, and what to do instead:
1. What Not to Say: “Oh, that was so long ago…”
A person needs to be able to grieve without feeling guilty, MaryKay Kubota, whose husband died unexpectedly at 49, said. People can’t just “deal with it and move on.”
What to Do Instead: Give the person adequate time — perhaps even a lifetime — to grieve.
2. What Not to Say: “Let me know how I can help…”
Unless you plan to deliver on your promise, this usually well-intended phrase only serves to push an already isolated individual further into isolation. “I would make up stories in my mind as to why they couldn’t help,” Kubota said. And in doing so, she began taking the blame for her loneliness.
What to Do Instead: Jolyon Hallows, who lost his wife in his 50s, appreciated the friends who would bring dessert when he invited them over for dinner. “Fattening and thoughtful,” he said.