"Does anyone else out there feel lonely and isolated since beginning to care for their parents?"

Perhaps it's because caregivers are, by and large, a selfless bunch and burdening other people with their problems is not their approach. Maybe it's that there are so many intimate and embarrassing aspects of looking after an elderly loved one, that sharing with others seems crass or akin to a betrayal of a family member's dignity. Or, it could simply be that family caregivers feel too busy or stressed to connect with other people.

Whatever the reason, loneliness and caregiving often go hand-in-hand. The onset of isolation can be insidiously incremental—as your loved one's needs demand more and more of your time, you begin to see less and less of friends and family. Until, one day, you realize that your social life has deteriorated along with your loved one's health.

The problem is that, in addition to exacting an extreme emotional toll, loneliness can carry dangerous—even deadly—physical consequences.

What Loneliness Does to your Body

According to Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, “Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.”

After analyzing survey responses of over 2,100 adults age 55 and over, University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo and his team concluded that lacking close personal connections raises an individual's premature death risk by 14 percent.

The bump in death risk that accompanies loneliness can be attributed to the array of biological responses that occur in a person's body when they feel alone: elevated blood pressure, increased inflammatory response, interrupted sleep, higher morning levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and intensified symptoms of depression.

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Why Being Alone Hurts

During a 2013 talk at the TEDxDesMoines Conference, Cacioppo delved into the evolutionary explanations behind the negative health effects of social isolation.

"We think of loneliness as a sad condition but, for a social species, being on the social perimeter is not only sad—it's dangerous," he says. "The pain and averseness of loneliness, of feeling isolated from those around you, is also part of a biological early warning machinery to alert you to threats and damage which you need to survive and prosper."

Historically, humans rely on the collective intelligence and strength of a group to defend against predators and forage for food. Just as low blood sugar triggers a hunger response and tissue damage triggers a pain response, so too does loneliness trigger an unconscious biochemical response, compelling us to satisfy our "hunger" for human connection.

Losing Social Connectedness

Loneliness in the elderly is increasingly recognized as a serious, but often fixable problem. Both caregivers and their loved ones are at risk for feeling lonely for a variety of reasons.

The stigma and memory loss of dementia makes it increasingly difficult for a person with cognitive impairment to connect to those around them. The dual-edged nature of this all-too-familiar scenario is that that the family caregiver will also feel the sting of isolation as their loved one mentally drifts further away from them.

Caregivers' connections to outside relationships may fall away as their provision of care increases. Over time, the totality of a caregivers focus becomes their aging loved one. Unfortunately, all too often, care decisions must be made in which a senior is placed in a higher level of care than a family caregiver can provide. Or, as the end-of-life is reached, caregiving responsibilities are no longer needed. In either instance, when caring for Mom or Dad is no longer filling the days, a caregiver is faced with the reality that their social connections have disappeared.

Rekindling Relationships

Creating (or rekindling) true connections with other people is a time-consuming, yet necessary, challenge for seniors and caregivers alike.

While there's no clear road map for developing and maintaining solid interpersonal bonds, Cacioppo and his team pinpointed three essential elements of healthy relationships:

Intimate connectedness: A feeling caused by socializing with people with whom you can be your true self, confident that they will always support you.

Relational connectedness: In-person interactions that are mutually beneficial to all parties involved.

Collective connectedness: Feeling as though one is part of a larger group beyond just one's individual self.

Human beings all need a combination of these three elements to combat the ever-present threat of loneliness. Cultivating relationships while caregiving can be challenging. In order to address all of the elements of maintaining healthy relationships, experts recommend:

  1. Reach Out and Ask: Explore the relational connectedness concept with family and friends who would also benefit from maintaining a connection with you and your care recipient; siblings, cousins, grandchildren, old friends. Let people know that you could use some company... no strings attached. There are likely people out there who miss your relationship and are waiting for an invitation to reconnect with you.
  2. Join a Support Group: It may seem counter intuitive, but sometimes the anonymous nature of a support group will allow you to form an intimate connectedness with others who are experiencing the same feelings. If you feel you've distanced yourself from family and friends because you can't possibly share your true feelings, a support group or a therapist may be a way to form a connection that allows you to share and to vent. Doing some emotional work within these settings may allow for you to reconnect with friends from a stronger place.
  3. Get a Dog: Pets are a non-judgemental source of support. Carefully consider if adding the care needs of a pet fits into your lifestyle, and if so, start your search. There is some basis to the fact that dogs are called "Man's Best Friend." Many people are comforted by the loyalty and unconditional love they get from a pet on a daily basis.
  4. Find a Cause: Explore the collective connectedness concept by joining a group. Consider your interests and look for volunteer opportunities or meetings. Volunteer at the election polls, join a knitting circle, or volunteer at the local hospital. Although it might take some time to feel comfortable reconnecting in a group setting, the knowledge you've gained may be an invaluable source of support to others. Joining others in this way establishes an instant camaraderie of common experience.