John O'Connor

The New York Times recently ran a troubling story about the staggering number of elderly Japanese who now die alone.

By some estimates, the toll exceeds 4,000 deaths a week. Not that social isolation is just Japan’s problem. Far from it.

In fact, more than 42.6 million adults age 45 or older may suffer from chronic loneliness here in the United States, according to a milestone study conducted by AARP.

Clearly, loneliness comes with the territory for many of our oldest citizens. But to say the least, it can be an unhealthy way to live.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.

Holt-Lunst presented the findings of her study on the topic during a recent American Psychological Association meeting.

“With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase,” she added.

It would seem obvious that one way to combat loneliness and social isolation in old age is immersion into an environment where living can be shared with others. Fortunately, one such solution exists. It is called senior living.

Yet to judge by many of the marketing materials the senior living field produces, that benefit doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point. Instead, you’re more likely to encounter images of well-manicured grounds, safe environments, modern exercise equipment and tempting meals.

Look, I get it. Those are all important perks. And in competitive areas, they can help seal the deal.

But it seems to me a larger opportunity is often being overlooked here. Companionship is a basic human need. Without it, we wither.

Let your prospects know they will not be alone. It’s a simple message. But in the long run, it may be far more tempting than photos of the kitchen’s latest creation.

John O’Connor is editorial director of McKnight’s Senior Living. Email him at [email protected].