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How Being Lonely Affects Your Health As You Age

By May 31, 2016July 17th, 2017Moments

While her success as a realtor came as a result of some significant personal sacrifices, Angela Markham had enjoyed two phenomenal years selling houses in Vancouver’s red hot property market.

For over a year Angela worked 12-hour days ashousing sales in Vancouver shot up by 50%. The hard work was worth it to Markham at the time — housing prices in Vancouver also soared 30% in one year, which meant Angela’s earnings increased as well.

“I got into the market as a realtor at the right time in more ways than one,” says Markham. “The ability to earn more after nearly two decades as a homemaker seemed worth it. But because I was so busy I also had to prioritize or even ignore other parts of my life, including my family.”

Markham had returned to work after raising two children in Vancouver’s Dunbar neighbourhood. It was a good way to support her husband, who, as an engineering manager, spent a lot of time on the road traveling to remote worksites. Markham’s decision to “stay home” also meant she could spend time with Nancy, her own mother, who lived alone near the Burnaby Mountain Golf Course.

Balancing the Needs of Career and Family Is Challenging For Many Women

“I had always wanted to resume my career as a realtor,” says Angela, “but I hadn’t realized that my mother Nancy would start needing some extra help now at this stage of her life.”

While her daughters were still in school, Angela had been able to make the 45-minute drive to Burnaby to visit her mother at least once a week. It didn’t seem as though her mother really needed the visits or any help, and Angela had no qualms about returning to work as a realtor. Once she started her new job, Vancouver’s red-hot housing market meant there was no end of work to be done. Months would go by without her having a chance to visit her mother.

“I didn’t notice my mother’s health was declining,” says Angela. “What happened next came as a total shock.”

In March, right at the start of the busy spring real estate season in Vancouver’s frothy real estate market, Nancy suffered a heart attack.

“The doctor said that if she were to recover she would need more companionship,” says Angela. “Loneliness would put my mother’s recovery at risk.”

Loneliness Puts Seniors’ Health At Risk

According to research conducted over the past decade, there is a strong connection between social bonds and mental and physical health. Especially for older people, the more social bonds and interactions one has, the lower one’s risk for chronic and debilitating disease.

Recently, researcher Martha McClintlock has linked loneliness with well-being in later life.

Using a government study of 3,000 middle-aged and older people, McClintlock and other researchers compared the medical conditions that doctors look for in the average check-up — blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, cancer — with information about psychological health, mobility, hearing and vision.

Researchers found that some seniors with chronic diseases actually were more likely to survive the next five years if they enjoyed good mental health. On the other hand, researchers found that half who were considered mentally healthy were more vulnerable to decline if they were lonely.

The difference? Poor mental health can make seniors more vulnerable to certain illnesses, according to the research. When investigating connections between physical health and mental health, researchers asked whether seniors felt lonely or if they were socially isolated.

How Loneliness May Affect Health

Loneliness influences mental health, which in turn affects the body’s biochemistry and immune system.

In a related study conducted by the University of Chicago and published in Psychology and Aging, researchers found a direct relation between chronic feelings of loneliness and increases in blood pressure. The increase affected even people with modest levels of loneliness, according to the study’s findings.

Loneliness also tends to affect older women more than men:

Angela’s mother Nancy lived alone. Following a heart attack, loneliness might make recovery more difficult.

“I Never Realized the Importance of Companionship”

“I had always thought of my parents as being totally self-sufficient,” says Angela. “I never really realized just how important my companionship was to my mother.”

Once Angela returned to work, Nancy just didn’t leave the house very much. While still relatively young at 77, Nancy did not drive, and this made life more difficult in Burnaby. Without Angela to drive her, Nancy took the bus once a week to a shopping center to pick up groceries.

“She stopped playing golf, and I guess she also missed the regular visits from her granddaughters,” says Angela. “But Nancy experienced a heart attack I was in a real bind — I was relying on my salary to help pay for their university. We want our girls to be debt-free when they graduate, and we also want to help them get into the housing market.”

For Angela, quitting her job to provide companionship for her mother was nearly impossible. But her mother wanted to stay at home — moving her into a care facility seemed extreme.

“I have committed to easing up on my work schedule so I can pay more frequent visits throughout the month,” says Angela. “But personal home care was also a key part of the solution.”

Personal Home Care Can Ease Loneliness

Nancy still needed help ensuring she was taking her medication, as well as keeping on top of household chores.

“There was really no way I could do everything for my mother without dropping my realtor practice, and that was just not a financially viable option for us,” says Angela. “Being able to rely on home care visits to ensure my mother’s needs were met was a lifesaver.”

Angela and her mother also worked with Nancy’s doctor to come up with strategies for alleviating loneliness.

“Besides my commitment to scale back a bit on my hours and spend a bit more time with my mother, our doctor mentioned there are things my mother can do to stay emotionally healthy and speed her recovery,” says Angela.

Strategies for Combatting Loneliness

Strategies for countering loneliness include taking up a hobby. By setting goals and measuring progress, hobbies can keep a person motivated and thinking about the future.

Nancy decided to take up floral arranging.

“Our Health Care Worker was actually able to take my mother to the florist to pick out flowers,” says Angela. “Then they worked on arrangements together. My mother enjoys her new hobby, and she’s recovering from her surgery.”

Angela is still managing the tricky act of balancing work and family, but is happy her mother is recovering and thriving.