At the Feb. 15 meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Altos, gerontologist Margriet DeLange spoke of two seniors.
Mary, she said, is 81 years old. She lost her first husband 15 years ago and has been married to her second husband for 10 years.
“Mary has some mobility issues. She is not socially engaged, doesn’t leave her house, and Mary is lonely,” DeLange said.
On the other hand, John, 94, strolls the neighborhood with his walker every day and knows his neighbors. When his wife died, he started traveling. He went to China, learned Mandarin and then invited a young Chinese couple to live with him.
“John,” DeLange noted, “is not lonely.”
DeLange, a Los Altos resident who worked with the Santa Clara County Department of Aging and Adult Services on the project “Protecting Our Elders: An Interfaith Response to Elder Abuse and Neglect,” initiated a new local project in 2016. She created the Senior Inclusion and Participation Project (SIPP) to help isolated and lonely older adults in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View by promoting social networks and intergenerational connections. Under the umbrella of the Center for Age-Friendly Excellence and Los Altos Community Foundation, the group also works with local faith communities, Los Altos Block Action Team leaders, Community Services Agency and the San Francisco State University Gerontology Department.
“I have a passion to do something for lonely elders,” DeLange said. “As a gerontologist and a healthy-aging educator, I know all about staying healthy through eating the right food, nutrition, through exercising, but lately … we’re hearing that’s not the only thing. We also need social connections. As a matter of fact, I overheard somebody say, ‘It is better to eat Twinkies together than broccoli alone.’”
Loneliness, DeLange said, is not a normal part of the aging process. She noted that loneliness and isolation, though closely related, are not the same.
Loneliness is a subjective condition, she said – “a perceived personal experience. I might have several friends and still have the emotion or the feelings of being lonely.”
Isolation, she said, is objective, able to be measured by how often a person goes out, or how many friends he or she has.
“Loneliness is not quantifiable – we cannot measure it,” she said. “Somebody who’s lonely longs to belong – how do we measure a longing to belong?”
The World Health Organization, DeLange said, “has declared loneliness to be an epidemic.” She spoke of the many negative health effects – physiological, emotional, mental – connected with loneliness.
“If we give a number to that, we’ve heard it said that the effects or the negative outcome is as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” she said.
According to DeLange, the negative health effects of loneliness can include depression, increased blood pressure, earlier mortality, suicide and even Alz- heimer’s disease.
She said it’s a new topic of research that’s difficult to study because of the stigma attached to it and people’s hesitance to admit to being lonely.
She recommended not asking people, “Are you lonely?” but rather, “How often do you feel lonely?”
A purpose beyond self
DeLange pointed to a recent Stanford University study on “Purpose beyond Self.” Of 1,200 participants ages 50-92, 69 percent responded that they did not have a purpose beyond self, while 31 percent did.
“They learned that those who had a purpose had a higher sense of well-being,” DeLange said, “whereas the nonpurpose group showed very negative relationships, boredom, stress and loneliness.”
Although DeLange found the results shocking, she also found room for hope.
“The people who said they have no purpose, or no purpose beyond self – they are open to it, and that’s a good thing, because there’s a little crack in the door,” she said. “So we need to create opportunities that are tailored to who they are – to their abilities and to their specific interests.”
Enter SIPP. Through quarterly senior brunches and other intergenerational functions, DeLange and her team hope to squeeze through that crack in the door.
But lonely people are reluctant to change, she said.
“We now know through neuroscience that the brain changes when people are lonely, and the longer they are, the more changes there are and the more resistance there is to being engaged and responding in a positive way to an invitation,” DeLange noted. “We have to remember that when people are very lonely, we knock on the door (and) they do not open. … Or they say, ‘Oh, no thank you, not for me,’ when we have a block party.”
It’s important to find ways to draw people in, she said, to make them feel valued and valuable.
An epidemic of loneliness
Statistics from the recent AARP report “Connect to Effect” revealed that 29 percent of the population in the U.S. age 65 and older occasionally have feelings of loneliness. Nineteen percent report frequent feelings of loneliness. Applying those percentages to Los Altos (using data from 2010), DeLange came up with a ballpark figure of 1,200 lonely seniors in Los Altos.
“It’s too much,” she said.
The AARP report noted that risk factors include “not being married, socializing less than once a week, having three or fewer friends and a strain in family relationships,” DeLange said.
“Physical limitations add to a sense of loneliness,” she added. “All these risk factors could also be consequences, so it can go both ways.”
What can be done to prevent and alleviate loneliness? DeLange advised staying socially active (noting that she was “talking to the choir” at the Rotary Club), building friendships, nurturing relationships and being familiar with and taking advantage of local resources.
SIPP, in its one-year pilot program, focused on education (helping the public to understand the epidemic of loneliness), infographic resource material (SIPP fliers are available with advice and resources for those feeling lonely) and activities such as intergenerational senior brunches and Senior Tech Events, both of which have proven popular. A creativity event is also planned.
DeLange said the key is to “include and engage, not entertain.”
“When a senior who is lonely is entertained, that senior feels more lonely coming home,” she said. “There is a need to be known and to know, to be accepted, to belong and to love.”
How to help
Groups such as the Girl Scouts, schools and neighbors can reach out to local seniors, DeLange said. Intergenerational “befrienders” are needed at SIPP’s senior events – to engage and follow up – as well as helping hands to distribute fliers and invitations, and sponsors for special events and printed materials.
The next free Senior Tech Event is scheduled 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 28 at the Highway Community, 2050 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View.