When loneliness works its way into the retirement years, the risk is more than spending too much unwanted time alone.
"How many of you go back to bed in the morning because there isn't anything for you to do?" asked Ana Guillermo, program director of H2U, Blake Medical Center's senior enrichment program
Her recent talk was about social isolation, an obstacle to healthy aging. The seminar was part of a series about practical solutions for challenges that face the elderly.
One is no longer having a sense of purpose, strong social ties and regular interactions with people. When that leads to a feeling of being isolated and overwhelmed, the lack of connection can manifest into worsening health.
Isolation can happen to caregivers who are consumed with caring for their loved ones and to older people who relied on their spouse for companionship and are now widowed.
"It's a recipe for depression," said Sue Fox, a community educator for the Alzheimer's Association Florida Gulf Coast.
In the elderly, depression can cause dementia, said Fox. Fortunately, it's a type of dementia that is reversible by treating the depression, she added.
Studies also have shown that older people who feel isolated have higher blood pressure, weaker immune systems and increased rates of death from chronic medical conditions such as heart disease.
The widespread misfortune of loneliness in old age has captured the attention of the AARP Foundation.
Combating social isolation in people older than 50 is now one of its causes. The foundation is sponsoring research to learn what leads to isolation in people older than 50 and what can be done.
Needing social contact is part of being human and reason enough to make the effort, said Guillermo. In making her pitch to seniors about the importance of social ties, she noted how even the little parts of daily interaction make a difference.
The common thread in her recent talk to seniors was "get out of your house."
"Just being in the proximity of another person -- if you sneeze they're going to say 'God bless you,'" said Guillermo.
Places in Bradenton such as the H2U center and Renaissance on 9th offer plenty of opportunities through classes, dances, get-togethers and activities such as card games and crafts. Churches, synagogues and social clubs also can be ties to the community.
An article in the March newsletter from Renaissance on 9th illustrated what might happen after seniors walk though the door. A retired teacher's aide told how she found a way to keep going after the end of the job she had loved for 30 years and the death of her husband. She found a passion in scrapbooking and has shared that enthusiasm by teaching classes at the center for the past six years.
Finding purpose is vital for preventing or ending isolation, said Erin McLeod, chief operating officer of the Sarasota Friendship Center, which opened in 1973.
One of the center's original goals was to connect seniors who had grown isolated in retirement.
"Brother Geenen (co-founder of the Sarasota Friendship Center) called isolation and loneliness the malnutrition of aging," said McLeod.
"If you don't stay connected, you age much more rapidly," she said.
Feeling like you matter and that someone needs you is a large part of staying socially engaged when older, said McLeod.
Volunteering is encouraged at the Friendship Center, which has branches in surrounding counties. In all, more than 1,000 members are volunteering. Tasks can be as simple as carrying trays for frail elderly in the center's cafeteria. They may involve going out into their communities; a group of retired business professionals are mentoring the unemployed to help them find jobs.
Initial resistance to coming to the center isn't uncommon, said McLeod. And some mistakenly believe the center is only for low-income elderly, she added.
"Lots of people come here almost grudgingly because their kids are saying they have to start doing something," said McLeod. "It's kind of like being dropped off at camp when you're worried about not knowing anyone."
McLeod has seen people blossom. One of the more dramatic examples was a woman who arrived depressed and looked it. Her hair was a mess, she didn't wear makeup and used a walker, said McLeod.
Pretty soon, she met a man who liked to dance. She discovered new friendships and liked being around people.
"The transformation in Norma was remarkable. She starting styling her hair and she got rid of the walker," said McLeod.
"Her mental and emotional state improved. Her physical state improved."
Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
H2U at Blake Medical Center
n Bayshore Gardens Center, 6049 26th St. W., Bradenton, 941-758-8343
n Cortez Center, 6670 Cortez Road, Bradenton, 941-792-0211
n Ellenton -- Ridgewood Plaza, 7042 U.S. 301 N., Ellenton, 941-722-5683
Renaissance on 9th, 1816 Ninth St. W., Bradenton, 941-749-0100
Sarasota -- The Friendship Center, 1888 Brother Geenen Way, Sarasota, 941-955-2122