Is There a Downside to Aging in Place?

Life is full of decisions to make, and the number of decisions we have to make does not decrease as we get older, nor do the decisions get less consequential. In fact, one of the biggest choices you’ll have to make is how to spend your old age: are you going to consider moving into an assisted living facility, will you have family to live with, or are you hoping to be able to “age in place,” or keep living in your own home for as long as possible? 

While it’s not always possible to make this decision on your own, depending on your health, it is a decision that you should have as much of a say in as possible. And if you’re like the majority of seniors nowadays, your preference is probably to stay put, for multiple reasons. But is there a downside to aging in place? As with anything, there are certainly pros and cons, but one major con to consider is the toll that aging in place can take on your mental health if you live alone, which can lead to feeling socially isolated. So does this downside negate the positive aspects of aging in place, or are there ways to combat this social isolation?

The Desire to Age in Place

What is aging in place? According to the CDC, this means “the ability to live in one’s own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level.” Sounds good, right? That’s probably why, as we mentioned above, if your goal is to age in place, you’re certainly not alone. In fact, a survey by the AARP has found that 77% of adults over 50 plan to stay in their homes for the long term, and that’s on the lowest end of the spectrum. Most surveys tend to show that 90% of older adults want to stay in their own homes as they age.

silhouette of an older couple under a house roof

According to Martin Lenoir, chief marketing officer at American Advisors Group (AAG), which did a survey on how meaningful “the home” is to seniors, “For seniors, the comfort, safety and independence of their home outweigh the desire to move.” In fact, AAG found that:

  • Over 90% of seniors prefer to remain in their homes as opposed to moving into an assisted living facility
  • 82% have no concrete plans to ever sell their home or move away

And why is this? According to this survey:

  • 83% of respondents stated they feel safer at home compared to elsewhere
  • 40% said their independence is the most important benefit of aging in place
  • More than 50% of seniors have an “emotional attachment” to their home because it reminds them of their family

Studies have also found that aging in place can promote life satisfaction, a positive quality of life, and self-esteem, all of which are needed to remain happy, healthy, and well into old age. But as mentioned above, there can be a dark side to staying at home.

The Dangers of Isolation

Aging in place can often mean living alone at some point; in fact, nearly one-third of all seniors live by themselves, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s close to 14 million seniors aging alone. And while living alone is not problematic for some older adults, it can lead to loneliness – generally around 40% of seniors report feeling lonely, with that number rising to well over 50% in 2020 during the pandemic – and even isolation-induced depression.

And it isn’t just the actual living alone that can be a problem for older adults, it’s the perception of loneliness and isolation (remember: loneliness doesn’t refer to being alone, rather it refers to feeling alone). As you age, it can be harder to get out to do the things you want to do, you might have lost a spouse who was your confidante, or family might be further away than you’d like them to be.

dangers of isolation infographic

These feelings of social isolation and loneliness can actually put your health at risk. Recent studies have found that:

  • Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
  • Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.
  • Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
  • Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

Those are some very dire statistics, but they don’t mean that you should give up on the idea of aging in place. If you’re physically able to stay home, the sense of independence, and the connection to the memories in your family home, can make staying put totally worthwhile. And there are ways to combat loneliness, social isolation, and all of the negative consequences that can come with those psychological impacts of living alone.

How Older Adults Can Avoid Social Isolation

If you’re aging in place, and living alone (or even if your spouse is still living with you, and you need more socializing), there are ways to combat loneliness. For example:

2 older women sitting on a bench outside
If you are feeling isolated, then reach out to family or friends.

Reach out

This is something that you’ve heard before, but it’s worth saying again: the first step to combating loneliness is to reach out. Have friends stop over, keep up with your neighbors, and set up a weekly time for grandkids or other close contacts to stop by for a visit. 

Consider a roommate

Sure, your college days are over, but there’s no reason why you can’t buddy up in your older age. In fact, seniors taking on roommates is a growing trend in the U.S., as more people are looking for help with the rent or mortgage, as well as companionship. And don’t worry, you don’t have to rely on placing an ad and hoping for the best: there are actually services that safely and effectively match up older adults with roommates.

Get some help around the house

If you need a helping hand, don’t hesitate to look into an in-home caregiver. They can provide practical assistance with things like meal prep, housekeeping, and transportation (so you can get out of the house more!), but they can also provide companionship, as well.

Give back 

Now that you’ve got more time on your hands, and you’re looking to spend some time with others, it’s the perfect time to consider volunteering. Local libraries, museums, schools, animal shelters, gardens, etc all need help, so whatever your interests you should be able to find a way to get involved in your community and meet new people.

Share your interests

Whatever your hobbies, try to find others who share them – and don’t be shy about telling your loved ones about them. They’ll be interested to know what makes you happy, and might want to join in so you can spend time together.

Get moving

Joining an exercise class is a great way to get out and meet people, as well get healthier and give yourself a shot of all those mood-boosting endorphins, making working out a win-win-win situation!

Be a joiner

Look into your local senior center, which probably has classes and activities geared towards older adults. You can meet people with similar interests, and learn something new!

Know your transport options

If you’re still driving, great! But if that’s not something you’re as comfortable with now that you’re getting older, make sure you know your options. Public transport can really be your friend (and many cities offer free bus passes for seniors), but if you live somewhere without as many public options, set up an account with a ride-sharing app like Lyft, or look into local senior centers, which sometimes offer transport for older adults.

hands on a tablet screen
If you cannot see your family or friends, then you consider seeing them through technology!

Embrace technology

If you can’t see your family and friends in person as much as you’d like, remember that you can see them anytime you like with the help of modern technology! Get yourself a smartphone or tablet and install an app like WhatsApp, which has a super easy video calling function, and your loved ones will be literally in your pocket and right there at your fingertips! Sure, it’s not exactly the same as spending time in person, but if you’re not sure about it, consider this: studies show that older adults who use email, instant messaging or social media platforms like Facebook have about the same rate of depressive symptoms as those who do not use any communication technologies. But people who use video chat applications have almost half the estimated probability of depressive symptoms.

Find a balance

Remember, only you can determine what the “right” amount of socializing is for you. Your friends and family might be concerned about you spending time alone, and with the best of intentions, try to pack your social calendar. If that’s not what you need, let them know! 

If you’re healthy and in the financial position to do so, aging in place can be a great option for keeping you feeling independent and in control as you age. You should absolutely be able to make this decision for yourself, but you also have to remember that avoiding social isolation needs to be near the top of your list of things to consider when thinking about what staying in your home as you age will look like. But with a good plan, some creativity, and a willingness to seek out opportunities, you’ll be able to ensure good mental health and continued social connections as you age in place.

Battling the Loneliness Epidemic

How would you describe the past year? Crazy? Unprecedented? And how have you felt during this crazy and unprecedented year? Scared? Frustrated? Bored? Zoom-weary? How about lonely? If so, you’re not alone (no pun intended): over the past year, a “loneliness epidemic” has been brewing, with 36% of respondents in one study last year saying they felt lonely “frequently” or “almost all of the time or all the time,” as compared with 25% in the weeks before the pandemic. Another study found that 20% of people across all age groups reported feeling lonelier than usual during the pandemic.

But the truth is that the problem didn’t start with the pandemic: a 2018 study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that around 22% of Americans felt “constantly” alone, and a report by the health insurance company Cigna found that 60% of Americans felt some degree of loneliness, pre-pandemic. Because feeling connected to others is vital to our emotional and physical health, it’s important to find some strategies to combat the loneliness that sometimes overwhelms many of us. 

Social Isolation vs Loneliness

Take the pandemic out of the picture, and, if you look at our society objectively, it seems like it would be difficult to feel lonely. If anything, we might be too connected for some people’s tastes! We have unlimited ways to digitally connect; we can (or will be able to again soon) hop on a plane and head anywhere in a matter of hours; more and more of us live in close quarters with neighbors all around us. Yet we still feel lonely, and that’s because there’s a difference between social isolation and loneliness.

silhouette of a brain with missing pieces all over
Loneliness has been linked to a variety of health issues like anxiety and dementia.

Social isolation is all about the amount of actual contact you have with others, while loneliness is much more subjective: it’s all about how you experience being alone or even how connected you feel to those around you. Think about it this way: just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you’re going to feel lonely, and just because there are people all around you doesn’t mean you’re not going to feel lonely. So it becomes very important to name loneliness, and to validate it; recognize that it is different from being alone, and that it is not shameful. Once you do that, you can begin to release those feelings. 

The Physical Risks of Loneliness

It’s not only important for our mental well-being to deal with our feelings of loneliness, it can also be vital to our physical health. Studies show that loneliness isn’t only linked to mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and suicide, it is also linked to a variety of health problems like dementia and heart conditions. It has also been shown that people without social support have lower chances of full recovery after a serious illness than people with a strong network. In fact, the health consequences of loneliness are often compared to the effects of smoking 15 cigarettes a day – and far fewer people do that than there are people who feel lonely every day!

Strategies for Coping with Loneliness

So if you’re struggling with loneliness, what can you do to help improve your emotional and physical well-being, as well as to simply get more enjoyment out of life? Therapists, doctors and researchers suggest trying some of the following strategies:

  • Look at what you’ve got – When you’re really feeling down, it can be annoying to have people tell you to look at all the good things around you. But when it comes to feeling lonely, that can be extremely important: one of the first steps to combating loneliness, other than naming it, is to examine all of the connections you already have in your life. Maybe you’re worrying that your friends aren’t telling you how they feel about you, but they might be showing it in other ways. 
notebook open with a pen on top
Talk to yourself, and write down your feelings, so you can decide how to deal with your feelings.

In other words, according to Kory Floyd, Professor of Communication and Psychology at the University of Arizona, “Many of us get tunnel vision when it comes to affection and intimacy, in that we ‘count’ only certain behaviors while discounting others…When people expand their definitions of affection and love to include a wider range of behaviors, they often discover that they aren’t as deprived as they originally thought.”

  • Talk to yourself – No, we’re not being silly here. What we mean is, when you’re feeling especially lonely, you should ask yourself questions, like what loneliness means for you. Also question whether you’re chronically lonely or lonely because of the situation you might be in at that moment in your life. Megan Bruneau, therapist and executive coach, says, “…[I]f I’m feeling loneliness more frequently than usual, I get curious about the shift. Has something changed in my relationships leading me to feel more disconnected? Have I been nurturing my current connections and creating opportunities for new ones that make me feel ‘seen’? Am I intentionally or accidentally isolating [myself]?” Look at what’s going on with you, so that you can decide how best to deal with your feelings.
  • Hit the brakes – When you think of loneliness, do you equate it with boredom? Well, the opposite might actually be the case: sometimes when you’re too busy you can get wrapped up in all of that stuff that needs to get done, and you can start to feel disconnected from the people around you. Psychiatrist Judith Orloff, MD, agrees: “Sometimes when people’s schedules are back-to-back for too long, they start disconnecting from themselves and other people. They get overwhelmed from overworking and too much stimulation. So the practice [then] is just to relax and do what their body needs.” If you find yourself overwhelmed with work and your to-do list, take a step back, slow down, and first reconnect with yourself with your favorite relaxation techniques – then you can begin to reconnect in meaningful ways with the world around you.
  • Find kindness – If the world seems cold to you, try to find ways to warm it up. Perform a random act of kindness, like paying for someone’s coffee, or even just smiling at someone or holding the door for them. Research shows that these acts release oxytocin, otherwise known as the bonding hormone, so even just a small, brief connection with another person can relieve feelings of loneliness. planet earth with different colored hands coming out from all around it Also consider getting out into your community and volunteering your time. If that’s difficult for you to do in person right now, look into virtual opportunities to give back – they could end up turning into something more in-person sooner than you think! Getting out there and doing something selfless will immediately help you feel less isolated, as will  working with others towards a shared goal.
  • Join the club(s) – Volunteering can be one way to meet new people who have similar interests; another way is to join a club, sign up for a class, or even try something completely new – like goat yoga! If this is something that interests you, start looking for groups now that you might like to join; they might have an online presence and they might be starting to meet up in person very soon!

    a dog behind a metal fence
    Adopting a pet can help you feel more fulfilled in your daily life.
  • Adopt a friendIt might sound like a cliche, but, really, a pet can be a person’s best friend, or at least a way to help fill a hole in your life. Whether it’s a playful dog to get you out of the house, a quiet cat to relax with on the couch, or any other furry or feathered creature, adopting a pet (and taking on the responsibility of caring for it) can help you feel more fulfilled in your daily life. 
  • Get creative – Even if you don’t think of yourself as the “creative” type, tapping into your creative side can help ease loneliness; in fact, you can try to embrace periods of solitude as opportunities to be more self-aware and creative. According to therapist and author Shrein Bahrami, “The experience of feeling lonely can often trigger a host of other emotions. When we are connected to our emotions, allowing ourselves to feel them and express them through creativity can be quite healing and meaningful.” Try writing, sketching, painting – even dancing to your favorite music and sitting quietly and knitting can get those juices flowing!
  • Be careful with social media – Being social can be a great antidote for loneliness – but how about using social media? Does social media cause loneliness and depression, or make it worse? Well, that’s still up for debate, but what is more important is how it affects you and how you use it in your life. For some people, social media is genuinely a way to stay connected, but for others, it can be a way to withdraw into themselves in unhelpful ways. 

When it comes to social media, first take a look at how much time you’re spending on it: according to a University of Pennsylvania study, limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day “may lead to significant improvement in well-being.” And it’s not just the amount of time you’re spending on social media that you should be examining; in fact, some researchers suggest that it’s not really how often you use it, it’s how you utilize it. Think about what you’re getting out of it and how it makes you feel. For example, using it to try to escape from the world can backfire, or scrolling through everyone else’s “curated” lives can give you serious fear of missing out (FOMO), or make you feel like you’re being purposefully not included in other people’s lives. Again according to Professor Floyd, “If we feel dissatisfied with our face-to-face relationships, we [often] retreat into the world of social media, which only exacerbates the problem. On social media, it seems as though everyone else has better jobs, better houses, better vacations, and better relationships than we do. That isn’t actually true, of course.”

Remember, if you’re feeling lonely, you’re not alone – in more ways than one! And perhaps knowing that there are others out there feeling what you’re feeling will actually help you to feel more connected to the world around you, and will tell you that it’s time to reach out. If you’re really struggling, though, please speak to a doctor, therapist, or other trusted professional. Together, we can beat the loneliness epidemic!