According to the UN the proportion of elderly to young people is at the highest it has ever been in history. This aging of the population is due to many factors and is mainly taking place in high income countries. Declining fertility rates, longer life expectancies and medical advancement are causing this shift in the balance of age groups. The aging of our population is not only putting a strain on those working and healthcare services but it also entails a series of new mental and physical health issues. Specifically, ones of loneliness, and solitude - A problem that will only become increasingly omnipresent as our population ages further and hence, should not be avoided nor neglected.
What is the problem?
Loneliness and isolation is an issue that many older people face. According to the NHS (National Health Service in the UK) “two million people in the UK over the age of 75 live alone” and that “more than a million older people say they go for over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.” Although we are currently in an age where we feel extremely connected, many elderly people are left out of the loop and this can cause a plethora of different health issues.
The NIH (American National Institute on Aging) has released a report detailing the risks associated with loneliness. It is said that social isolation can increase a person's risk of premature death from all causes. Dr Steve Cole, a professor of medicine, bio behavioural sciences and psychiatry at UCLA stated that “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
Consequently, it comes as no surprise thet thos experience social isolation are associated with increase risk of the development of dementia, strokem heart disease, depression, ancietx and suicide rates. Consequently, mental health for all, including the ederly is an issue that needs to be addressed and acted upon.
Why is this a problem?
The cause of increased instances of mental health issues in older populations is an interesting topic and has various theories surrounding its cause. In my opinion, this issue stems from the ways in which our societies are structured. Due to other health issues, it is extremely difficult for the elderly to maintain agency and mobility in their own life and participate in their community. Although new technology can give them back some flexibility, It can be difficult to grasp or comprehend. This leads to a feeling of being left behind which only furthers their sense of ostracisation and solitude.
How can we help?
This issue may seem difficult to tackle however there are a multitude of different ways that us, as students, can help the elderly and make them feel more included. I would say the best way is through volunteering; in nursing homes and hospices. La Maison de Tara (email@example.com) is currently looking for volunteers and could be a way for you to help alleviate the social isolation certain residents are experiencing. Additionally, the Red Cross offers programmes in which you can volunteer in local nursing homes around Geneva. Although this can be time consuming, we forget the importance of learning from our elders and the value they can add to our lives. Although, not everyone can volunteer, even small actions are just as valuable and important in reducing the elderlys sense of isolation. Starting conversations with neighbours or a simple smile can make a difference to the rest of someone's day. In order to combat the issue of mental health in the edlerly populations we have to face the problem head on and actively look for solutions; volunteering, connecting digitally, and organising inclusive events are things we can and should be doing to include all members of our society.