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Old and Lonely: The Growing Specter of Social Isolation

by Katia Savchuk

Percent of Population Ages 65 and Older: 2000

The world is getting old. The global population of older adults (65+) in 2025 is expected to be double what it was in 2000, while the number of children will only grow by 3 percent.  In the United States, the elderly population is expected to increase by 80 percent! The most developed countries are those with the highest elderly populations, including Japan, the United States and European countries.

As the elderly population grows, so does the specter of social isolation, a relatively widespread but largely invisible problem. Up to 15 percent of older adults are socially isolated today, according to Dr. Patrick Arbore, who has been counseling seniors for over 40 years and runs the elderly suicide prevention center at San Francisco's Institute on Aging.

Social isolation is basically extreme loneliness. It is often bound up with physical solitude, but it is defined as an emotional absence: the lack of meaningful relationships. Isolation tends to creep in when older adults lose a spouse or friends or live alone. A third of elders in the United States live alone, and the percentage is rising there and elsewhere. Not speaking English or being poor (10 percent of seniors are below the poverty line) also makes people more vulnerable. It also tends to follow illnesses or accidents that leave people immobilized or impaired.

Loneliness can be crippling: It can speed up physical and mental deterioration and make seniors more likely to be abused, depressed or addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to a new handbook on the topic. Lonely elders are also more likely to commit suicide - already more prevalent among older adults than any other group. 

By its nature, isolation occurs out of view. It is only when crises hit that the problem has come into the public eye. Eric Klinenberg famously demonstrated in Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago on the city's 1995 disaster that older adults who lived alone without social contacts were the most likely to die.

Isolation is partly the consequence of an emphasis on independence and the fact that more elderly people are living alone or in institutions, rather than with extended families, over the last 50 years. It also has to do with ageism, what Dr. Arbore calls "the cruelest of the isms" because it "isolates people, makes them feel powerless, makes them retreat." While elders are respected in many societies, they are disregarded in cultures that exalt productivity and youth. Age-based residential segregation has increased in the last half-century with the spread of nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and other senior housing. These are critical resources for people without other sources of help, but they can leave people cut off from the rest of society.

The irony, of course, is that no one escapes getting old — unless you die young. Resistance to aging and a Facebook-based social life is only likely to make things worse. Just another reminder about the importance of integrated living arrangements based on real connections.

Credits: Images from the U.S. Census.