It is a well-documented fact that social interaction is as important to overall health and successful aging as exercise, diet or stopping smoking. But many seniors living alone, especially in rural areas, struggle to stay socially engaged with their communities and often suffer isolation that can lead to depression.
A recent University of Michigan study found that one in five elderly adults is socially isolated from friends and family which increases their risk for mental and physical health problems as well as increasing rates of mortality.
A federally funded program is hoping to help aging adults stay connected with their neighbors through Senior Corps, an initiative that sends an over-55 friendly visitor to isolated seniors each week. The volunteers are expected to serve between 15 and 40 hours each week and receive a stipend of $2.65 per hour to offset travel expenses. Some volunteers take their clients on outings to provide much-needed respite for caregivers and loved ones. But the real reward for volunteers is providing a meaningful social connection with someone who can relate to their own life experiences. The relationships that develop are often deep and mutually beneficial.
According to a recent National Public Radio report, in many communities where the aging population is rapidly growing, organizations that provide visiting companions for elderly adults have waiting lists that are expected to lengthen over the next 20 years. In particular, male visiting companions are in high demand for elderly men who find themselves alone when their friends have died or moved away. Men have been found to be less likely than women to put in the effort to maintain friendships in adulthood, with the demands of a busy home and work life. In older age, men may find themselves alone without deep friendships they can rely upon in times of need or for companionship.
Seniors with mobility problems are also more likely to experience social isolation because they are not able to participate in certain activities or move well outside the home. A visiting companion provides meaningful social interaction for vulnerable older adults, improving their overall health and quality of life.