You Are Not Alone: 6 Steps to Reduce Senior Isolation
Social isolation in seniors can cause emotional issues like depression and loneliness, as well as physical fallout such as immunodeficiencies and heart disease.
Learn how to spot and reduce social isolation in your loved ones.
Reduce Senior Isolation
Is your parent feeling lonely or isolated? There is a serious physiological and psychological component to loneliness and isolation. Studies have found that socially isolated elders are twice as likely to die prematurely, with a mortality rate comparable to smoking. Some studies even show that loneliness is nearly twice as dangerous as obesity. It can wreak havoc with your immune system and increase inflammation, leading to diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and other serious health conditions.
Older adults tend to suffer the most. “The older someone is, the less mobile they may be and the more difficult it is to establish new relationships and interests,” says Dr. Marc Agronin, medical director for mental health and clinical research at the Miami Jewish Health Systems in Miami. “Children may not live nearby, they may be less connected to religious organizations and have increasingly limited social spheres.”
It’s unrealistic to think that you can completely get rid of loneliness. It may not be possible. But if you can reduce isolation, chances are you will reduce loneliness. And the other way around.
According to Agronin, one of the major causes of isolation is widowhood, particularly for couples who have had interdependent relationships. The same can be true for spouses whose partners have dementia or are chronically ill. Social contact can fade away if they’re consumed with caregiving or no longer go out much, ultimately leading to depression.
Fortunately, depression is not a given. “Contrary to what people believe,” says Agronin, “rates of severe depression tend to go down in late life. It is not a normal part of aging.” That’s why you need to make sure you’re not missing something big like depression or untreated pain, say, that is limiting your loved one’s ability, or interest, in being social and involved in the world.
What you consider isolation and loneliness, however, can actually be solitude to someone else. Your mom may spend a lot of time alone and be fine about it. “Social isolation and loneliness are real experiences and painful ones, and we need to do all we can to keep them at bay or deal with them when they happen,” says Bella DePaulo, a social scientist and visiting professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But we should be careful not to impose on our parents our own standards for what counts as enough socializing.”
That said, some people do feel isolated—and are. In fact, recent surveys show that 40% of adults admit to being lonely. Here are six questions to think about when considering your loved one’s social wellness:
1. How is Your Loved One’s Living Situation?
Is she physically isolated from others? If so, could she move to a more supportive place where she feels a sense of community? If she stays where she is, there may be what is called a “Village” in the area, where people live at home but have ongoing opportunities to socialize with neighbors and often have access to vetted, discounted service providers. Can Mom get involved in her town senior center or adult day center? If she has extra bedrooms, she might consider having a student live in in exchange for chores, or another older adult, shaving costs and offering companionship. There are roommate-matching agencies around the country; many do background checks.
2. Does Your Relative or Friend Like Animals?
Caring about someone or something else can give you a sense of purpose, not to mention a warm, fuzzy feeling. Is Dad a cat or dog person? Can you take him to your local shelter to walk an equally lonely dog, just visit, or bring home a precious pet? If he has a gentle, well-behaved dog, would he consider bringing it to a nursing home? Pet therapy is medicinal: it can lower blood pressure and anxiety, boost memory, and contribute to mood and a sense of well being. It’s also fun.
3. Does Mom or Dad Have a Way to Get Around?
Transportation can put the brakes on the best of plans. Many older adults volunteer to drive people to appointments or on outings. (i.e. the San Francisco-based for-profit company SilverRide offers escorted rides wherever the elder wants to go—the theatre, a trip to the movies, out to lunch with friends.)
4. What Are Her Interests?
Volunteer opportunities for older adults abound. Want to help struggling school children learn to read? Does Mom want to try her hand at acting, storytelling, music, or dance? The National Center for Creative Aging has a list of programs nationwide taught by top-notch professionals and geared to an age 50+ group.
5. What Can Technology Offer?
A lot! You don’t need to be a tech whiz to connect with family and friends, whether it is Skype, email, or a system like GrandCare or ConnectedLiving available in long-term care. The ingenious Selfhelp program started in New York and now in other parts of the country is known as the Virtual Senior Center. Homebound seniors can participate in daily, real-time classes such as music, current events, history, armchair yoga, and painting, along with those taking the class at the senior center via broadband technology, a touch screen device and integrated webcams in their apartment.
Peggy Shannon, 68, lost her job as an administrative assistant after major surgery last April. She used to attend a local senior center but could no longer drive. With no structure to her day, Shannon was getting depressed.
“I was feeling isolated and bored. My mind was going to mush,” she recalls. Then along came the San Diego Virtual Senior Center. “It has been a real refuge for me. It’s amazing. Through the program, I can take classes from other senior centers and talk to people whether they are here in San Diego or in New York or Chicago. It also makes me want to have my makeup and earrings on and not look dowdy!”
6. What Resources Are Available?
Do you have suggestions for reducing isolation? What has worked for your family? Please share your comments below.
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