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Millions of seniors are dealing with loneliness; my grandmother is one of them

Ann Benny says she does feel lonely at times, although an audio book reading device she keeps close at hand does help. “I’d be lost without it,” she said.

At age 93, my grandmother Ann Benny lives alone and deals with periodic bouts of loneliness. She’s certainly not alone in that feeling. The U.S. Census estimates between 11-12 million Americans over the age of 65 live alone.

Loneliness and isolation among seniors citizens is a growing problem according to experts who study geriatric medicine. It is becoming a public health crisis. A University of California, San Francisco study found that participants 60 years old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk of death. The National Council on Aging found socially isolated seniors are more likely to predict their quality of life will get worse over the next 5 to 10 years.

“People are very busy. Younger people are very busy and it can be difficult for them to find the time,” Benny said. She says she does feel lonely at times, although an audio book reading device she keeps close at hand does help. “I’d be lost without it,” she said.

Over the last several years, my grandmother and I have talked a lot about loneliness. My retired parents live a few houses away from her – and they offer fantastic care. However, her good friend across the street died suddenly a few years ago, and more recently her younger sister was diagnosed with dementia, was moved to a nursing facility and died.

The death of a neighbor and her sister caused her world to get smaller, “in an instant,” she told me. “You are lost, you are just lost,” she said of the impact those deaths had on her life.

For several years after becoming a widow, my grandmother would go to a local senior center. “You can find people who are in the same situation you are. It is wonderful. But, then you start to get to a point where you say I’m not going to go today. I’ll find something to do around the house. And those days get more and more. And then you reach a point where getting out of the house isn’t so easy and then you can be stuck,” she said.

There is a growing body of scientific evidence that loneliness acts on the body that is similar to chronic stress. It raises the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause inflammation and bring on conditions including heart disease and diabetes. The Journal of the American Medical Association Psychiatry found loneliness may be associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

My grandmother wanted to make a few things clear as we presented a special week of reports on this important topic: younger and middle aged people are probably not confronting the issue, but they should.

Loneliness and isolation among seniors does not get a lot of attention, but this week on CBS5 News at 6:00 it will. We are going to take an unprecedented and comprehensive approach to diagnosing the problem and empowering concerned children and grandchildren and other family members to do something about it.

Here is our schedule of reports (all air at 6pm on CBS5) this week:

Tuesday May 22:

The Public Health Crisis

Our Laura Hand talks to the head of the Geriatrics program at SUNY Upstate and asks how many people are lonely and isolated? What does that do to a person’s health? How big of a problem are we facing? Plus she tags along with innovative “classes” that go beyond knitting and playing cards – these are feeding the mind, which is a critical component of getting older in a healthy way.

Wednesday May 23

Less lonely in CNY

How do we tackle the problem of loneliness? Exercise is seen by most experts as one of the key solutions – but we also know that comes with challenges. What if I can’t run? What if I’m not near a workout facility? There are solutions to all of those issues right here in CNY. Laura explores them with a man who is taking on this challenge with seniors.

Thursday May 24

Making Connections

I tag along for a day in the Senior Companions run by Interfaith Works. It operates in three CNY counties and pairs someone 55+ with a senior who might otherwise not have someone to visit with them or take them to run errands. The program is free and is of great comfort to children/grand children who don’t live near their aging loved ones.

Friday May 25

The Legacy of Lucy

She died recently, but before she did she was basically adopted by the Phoenix Police Department. She had no one to visit her and her life was lonely. The police chief will tell us about how Lucy’s loneliness impacted him and how he looks at the issue of isolation and loneliness different now.

The CHOOSE Program

Phoenix Police are leading the way when it comes to tackling the issue of loneliness and isolation among seniors. Willing senior citizens can sign up for the CHOSE Program - Cops Helping Our Own Seniors in Emergencies.

Here are other links that may be helpful to you:

*This free ‘Friendship’ hotline will talk lonely seniors through a tough time and offer guidance on services.

*This is AARP’s loneliness quiz to help determine what is going on with a senior in your life.

*”You can’t be lonely and be a healthy person,” article about how the issue is being tackled in other parts of the country.

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