According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 22 million adults 55 years and older live alone. We asked experts to share their tips for aging well on your own.
1. Stay socially engaged.
“Social isolation and loneliness decrease our satisfaction with life and increase symptoms of mental illness…and symptoms of illnesses and pain,” notes JanaLee Wagner, DSW, MSW, LICSW, owner of New Pulse Counseling in Walla Walla, WA. “Social activity increases physical health, decreasing risks for many diagnoses older Americans [experience] like heart disease, strokes, and diabetes among many others. And those who are socially active have faster recovery periods for acute illnesses and surgeries.”
That’s why, she says, “everyone needs to have friends and socialize. Join a club, go to the Senior Center, use an app to make and maintain friends.” You can find in-person groups in your area and online communities accessible from anywhere. Social platforms like Facebook keep many solo seniors connected to people near and far. Specialized apps, like Lifeline Cares, enable you to share well-being updates and medical information securely with a select group of relatives and friends. You and your care circle can use the app, or the Lifeline device, to check in with each other and stay in touch on important health issues you shouldn’t share on social media.
2. Design for aging in place.
Growing older in our own homes increases our sense of autonomy and independence. It can also help us feel less isolated and lonely. As our needs change, our living space should change with us, according to Heidi Huynh, owner of Ascend Therapy Services.
“Set up your environment and daily routines to work for you,” the Aurora, CO-based occupational therapist notes. “Living areas may need to be adjusted to make things easier and safer for you. This may include placing often-used items in easily accessible areas or [installing] a shower chair or toilet safety frame in the bathroom.” Consider meeting with an occupational therapist or a certified aging-in-place specialist for insights from skilled professionals.
3. Work out for physical and cognitive health.
“Keeping both your body and brain active can help prevent falls, ER visits, nursing home placement, isolation, depression, and loneliness,” explains Olivia Evans, owner of Purple Hydrangea Dementia Care, Consultation & Support in Chelmsford, MA. “Physical movement — stretching, cardio, resistance, and balance — keeps communication moving in our brains,” says the certified dementia practitioner and Montessori dementia care professional. “Even small movements like grabbing or reaching can help us stay mobile for everyday tasks.” Low-impact or -intensity physical activity also is beneficial.
As long as your doctor OKs it, you can continue your normal exercise and activities. If you’re looking for something new, or if you want to become more active, ask your healthcare provider which activities are best for you.
4. Practice fall prevention.
“While falls become more common with advancing age, they should not be considered a part of normal aging,” notes Caroline Morris, a board-certified geriatric clinical specialist and owner of Morris Clinic in Alexandria, VA. That’s why she recommends learning about fall prevention. Your doctor’s office or local council on aging can recommend a community-based program, but you might also pursue an individualized fall risk assessment and balance training from a physical therapist, and a home safety evaluation from an occupational therapist.
Fall prevention programs are a key factor in reducing our fear of falling, which can trigger “fear avoidance behaviors”. Morris explains: “That’s when you’re basically avoiding any activity that could theoretically increase the risk of a fall. This often results in becoming more sedentary and socially isolated, which in turn increases the risk of falling and other negative health events.”
5. Invest in security and peace of mind.
Concerns over our personal well-being and safety can be higher when we’re on our own. Kristen Bolig, the founder of Security Nerd, says the key is staying connected. “I always recommend seniors living alone establish connections with their neighbors and community,” the Fort Mill, SC-based consultant says. “The neighbors we have even a passing relationship to develop a passive awareness of our patterns and routines and will notice if something changes.”
She also recommends investing in technology. “I tend to recommend [home security solutions] which are cheaper and can be controlled through a smart home device like an Alexa,” she says. These systems can automatically adjust interior and exterior lighting, capture images of people around your home and alert authorities. A medical alert system ensures that help is seconds away for any kind of emergency, from feeling dizzy to experiencing loneliness or recovering from a fall. A solution with automatic fall detection can summon help even if you don’t press the button.
Use this information to age independently, safely and well.