Bridging the Loneliness Gap: Making a Happier and Healthier Future for the Elderly

The holidays have quickly come and gone, and as is customary during this time of gratitude, many of us have made an effort to offer a kind gesture to the less fortunate and more lonely individuals among us -- especially older people -- for whom this can be a difficult time of the year.

Roughly one in five people are believed to suffer enduring loneliness and the incidence of loneliness tends to grow -- and is increasing -- among older populations. The English Longitudinal Study on Aging, for example, suggests that, by 2030, 1.5 million older men will be living on their own in England, nearly double the current number.

The psychological and physical effects of persistent loneliness are varied, and include sleep disruption, depression, high blood pressure and constant stress. One 2012 study in the Netherlands found participants who felt lonely (including some who were not alone in life) were at 64 percent greater risk of developing dementia than other people. Other experts have found that feelings of rejection and isolation can create brain response similar to physical pain. And according to University of Chicago psychologist and researcher John Cacioppo, loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 14 percent.

The problem of loneliness is inevitably set to grow. There are currently 868 million people on Earth aged 60 years or more, and that number is rising at nearly double the rate of any other age category. According to the OECD, there will be 2.4 billion people aged 80 and over by 2050, and they will represent 10 percent of the world's population at that time, compared to just 4 percent in 2010. There's a clear urgency to anticipate those shifting figures by adapting policies and services to prevent the seclusion -- and safeguard quality of life -- of that enormous, aging group of people.

Yet like the famous miser Scrooge in Dickens' A Christmas Carol -- another seasonal tale about the risks of loneliness! -- the growing population of the elderly are not doomed to a fate of spreading solitude. There are solutions that are in the best interest of individuals, businesses and society overall.

More must be done to address the problems of aging, including loneliness. Even in times of tightening national budgets, funding must be found to reinforce pensions, affordable healthcare, and various aid like subsidized public transportation that enhance quality of life for the aged. These kinds of investments are in everyone's interests.

Indeed, facing the demographic and human challenge of aging will offer challenges and opportunities for businesses. This huge demographic represents an expanding market requiring goods, services and help that companies and institutions aren't sufficiently providing today but that we need to develop rapidly.

A far larger number of healthcare workers must be recruited and trained to meet the looming challenge. Workers providing other services for the elderly--drivers, cleaners, foodservice assistants and other service-providers--can be trained to engage in a more empathetic and compassionate manner help abate the feeling of isolation of the older people they care for.

Similarly, technology should be further adapted to battle loneliness and offer care, including applications to allow families, friends and care-providers real-time remote contact with older people. Social media must be created to establish communication with (and between) otherwise isolated seniors, and phone apps and other technologies developed to respond to their particular needs.

But IT innovation will never replace physical connectedness and human warmth.

Restoring quality of life that loneliness undermines starts by bridging the gap between people who've become isolated from the rest of us. Focusing the conversation around quality of life, not simply longevity, is critical to creating programs to truly combat loneliness and improve care. As a society, we need to prioritize this expanded conversation and as businesses, we need to lead the efforts. Finally, individually, this means applying some of our holiday spirit today, to our interactions with older and isolated people, every day.