Loneliness is growing epidemic among seniors during the holidays, doctors say

GLENDALE, Calif. (KABC) -- Chronic loneliness is a growing problem that can be as harmful for seniors as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

It can lead to higher rates of chronic disease, depression, dementia and even death. Doctors say we all can treat loneliness with a bit caring, sharing and love.

Hospital volunteer Cindi Olson of La Crescenta never knows what a patient might need so she wants to be prepared.

"We give them shirts shoes, socks underwear, something to go home with," Olson said.

Besides the donation closet, her duties at Glendale Adventist Medical Center include greeting people and helping them find their way. Olson retired two years ago but she felt a little lost herself after a while.

"I was lonely and I needed something to do," she said.

"When people lose that sense of purpose, they lose their Identity they feel worthless and they feel like they are not contributing to society," said Dr. Harry Balian, a cardiologist at Adventist Health.

Balian says chronic loneliness is a growing problem. One in three seniors say they have little to look forward, something Balian sees a lot in his practice.

"There's a direct link of increased risk of dementia in people who have less social contact," he added.

Loneliness not only impacts a person's mental well-being, but their physical health as well. Stress is directly linked to vascular events such as heart attacks and strokes, according to Balian.

If you know someone who is lonely, Dr. Balian says talking to them, but more importantly listening to them, is crucial.

"Surround them with love and nurturing and make sure they are surrounded with positive activities that they can engage in," Balian said.

In giving, Olson says she gets back so much more. She recalls the day she was able to give a pair of shoes to a patient who really needed them.

"He started crying and I started crying and it just makes you feel so good," Olson said. "You're going to feel better by making somebody else feel better."
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