Evolutionarily, human beings are social creatures. We are programmed to live in some sort of group and interact with others. However, individuals in every society must cope with social isolation. Social isolation refers to a complete or near-complete lack of contact with society. It is usually involuntary, making it distinct from isolating tendencies or actions taken by an individual who is seeking to distance himself from society.
Social isolation is distinct from loneliness. Loneliness reflects a temporary lack of contact with other humans and is a subjective experience. Social isolation, by contrast, can be objectively measured in terms of a person's social contact and relationships.
Maintaining friendships and building relationships is an important aspect of old age that wards off social isolation.
Any individual from any segment of society may be socially isolated, but senior citizens are especially susceptible to the risk factors that may trigger social isolation. These include living alone, family violence, loss of a spouse, aging-related cognitive impairments and disabilities, and transport issues. Consequences of social isolation can be dangerous, particularly for individuals already predisposed to health problems. Studies have demonstrated that seniors who are socially isolated seniors are less likely to take advantage of health and social services. This indicates a circularity of social isolation and health: individuals who are already marginalized are not pushed toward healthcare and individuals with quickly deteriorating health are more likely to be socially isolated. Extended social isolation can contribute tolate life depression, which is a major depressive episode occurring for the first time in an individual over sixty years of age.
Social isolation is a larger problem for elders now than in the past, due to the decreasing size of families in Western countries. In the past, elders were not at increased risk for social isolation because they would move in with their children. Now, many elders are moved into elder homes with less frequent contact with their children. However, many elder homes and retirement facilities are working to combat social isolation by increasing programming for their residents.