Loneliness – A public health crisis among the aged

Being a psychiatrist it really pains me to have encountered such cases amongst the ageing population who are facing social isolation and becoming increasingly disconnected from society in general.

Sitting on an armchair in a corner of her small dilapidated room in Mumbai, Maryam Abid (68), a widow living alone with no children to take care of her, has made peace with her daily routine comprising of chores and spending most of her day reading. ‘I often call up my relatives to help me in case of health issues or seek support from neighbours to ferry me for attending any religious functions,’ she shared with a young Dawoodi Bohra volunteer who visited her to inquire after her well-being.

‘Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night feeling uneasy and distressed about living alone without having anything to do,’ she added.

Like Maryam, many such elderly are receiving counselling and meaningful engagement as part of the worldwide Dawoodi Bohra community movement to fight loneliness among the aged.

Being a psychiatrist it really pains me to have encountered such cases amongst the ageing population who are facing social isolation and becoming increasingly disconnected from society in general.

India is ageing rapidly

The demographic profile of the world is witnessing drastic changes. Due to a number of factors including advances in health care, virtually every country is experiencing growth in the number and proportion of senior citizens in their population.

As per a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), senior citizens in India – 60 years or more – are expected to increase from 8.7 percent in 2015 to nearly 20 percent of the total population by 2050.

According to a study, in this country of 1.3 billion people, almost every second elderly person is vulnerable to loneliness and isolation which leads to numerous health and cognitive issues including anxiety, depression, and even premature mortality.

Loneliness among the aged – An epidemic that needs to be addressed 

We live in this age of digitization and hyper-connectedness, yet huge swaths of the aged population are bereft of meaningful social engagement and suffer from a lack of participation in family life and modern society. Due to the decline in social support systems, older people who live alone or with only a spouse are likely to be more vulnerable – socially, physically, economically and emotionally – than those who live with families, especially in the case of elderly women who face more adversities in old age than men.

Mental health also deteriorates with advancing age, leading to a higher likelihood of mental health vulnerabilities among the elderly. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental health disorders account for 13 percent of global diseases and are particularly common among senior citizens. This means that caring for the elderly and providing them with social engagement will become a greater necessity in the coming years.

Community help to fight loneliness among elderly

Everyone has a role to play for the wellbeing of the elderly, including government agencies, healthcare sectors and families to ensure that senior citizens are socially engaged, respected and remain active members of
 the society.

In a diverse country like ours, local community outreach programmes and social engagement events aimed at connecting the elderly, like the recent ones undertaken by the Dawoodi Bohra community, go a long way in fighting loneliness and rejuvenating the aged among us.

As young adults, it is important to give more quality time to our parents and grandparents. Increasing the frequency of personal visits to show compassion towards our elders has a significant impact on their happiness and overall outlook on life.

Love and care are at the heart of addressing any health-related issues and the same rule applies to loneliness. Love is, in fact, one of the oldest remedies in the field of medicine which we often forget to prescribe.

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