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Combating Senior Isolation During Winter

Sarah Stevenson
By Sarah StevensonJanuary 24, 2017

Being indoors because of cold conditions and weather can put our parents at risk of senior isolation during winter. Find out what to do to keep your elderly loved ones engaged and healthy.

Winter weather across much of the country is keeping many people indoors more than they would like, and being stuck inside can be a particular problem for seniors living alone — putting their emotional, mental and even physical health at risk. Not only is it more difficult for the elderly to leave without risking dangers like the cold, dangerous driving conditions and falls, it’s also harder for visitors to reach them. Winter weather can also affect senior nutrition, if someone is unable to leave the house and shop for food. Even more distressing is that loneliness and social isolation can occur.

How Loneliness Affects Senior Health and Well-Being

We often think of the elderly as residing with family,  in a senior community or other shared housing situations, but according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the probability of living alone increases with age. For women, the likelihood of living alone is 32% for 65-74-year-olds, but this increases to 57% for those aged 85 years or more; for men, the corresponding proportions are 13% and 29% . Even for centenarians — seniors who are 100 years of age or older — the numbers are astonishingly high: about a third of centenarians live alone at home.

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Isolation in the elderly can lead to some distressing health outcomes, and even increase the risk of death. A review published in The Journal of Primary Prevention, stated that “social isolation has been demonstrated to lead to numerous detrimental health effects in older adults, including increased risk for all-cause mortality, dementia, increase risk for re-hospitalization, and an increased number of falls.”

Recent research also shows how it affects seniors: University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo, reported that feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of dying early by 14%.

“Feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being,” stated U Chicago News.

What You Can Do to Combat Senior Isolation During Winter

According to Cacioppo, the danger isn’t necessarily solitude itself, but a subjective feeling of little face-to-face connection, social engagement and others. Age-related health issues like hearing loss, incontinence or vision loss can increase this sense of senior isolation during winter.

So what can caregivers and families do to address the issue if we fear our loved ones are isolated? Here’s a list of suggestions for preventing senior loneliness and keeping our loved ones happy and healthy this winter:

1. Address Any Underlying Health Issues

Whether it’s arranging for the delivery of incontinence supplies or making sure your loved one has regular hearing or vision tests, being proactive about seniors’ health can help them feel better on a day-to-day basis. What’s more, it can diminish the social anxiety related to hearing, vision, or continence concerns.

2. Reach Out to Family, Friends and Neighbors

If the weather makes it impossible for you to check on your senior loved one as much as you’d like, enlist the help of others who may be nearby and more easily able to visit. Can a neighbor knock on the door and check in? Don’t forget to call or email your loved one often to keep those connections strong even when you can’t visit in person.

3. Prevent Senior Malnutrition with Food Delivery

Seniors who live alone may be at greater risk of getting poor nutrition when the weather turns nasty. Consider getting food delivered by an online grocery service, or by an organization such as Meals on Wheels, which can provide not just nutritious food but social contact.

4. Encourage Mobility and Safe Transportation

Encouraging your loved ones to use the adaptive technologies they may need, from hearing aids to walkers, which can help them become more active and socially engaged. When it comes to getting outside the house, though, storms and snow can present a challenge. Give senior relatives rides when you can, or arrange safe transportation for them, whether it’s senior-friendly public transit, an ambulette or paratransit service, or a taxi.

5. Connect Older Loved Ones with Necessary Local Services

You can use the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Eldercare Locator website to get in touch with your local Area Agency on Aging. The AAA will know where your loved one can find senior centers, transportation services, and other helpful programs for the elderly. “Some AAAs even have volunteers who call and check in on home bound seniors living alone,” says a recent article by the AARP.

6. Consider Assisted Living or Respite Care

Sometimes our loved one needs more care than we are able to provide, especially in cases where the weather throws a (literal) roadblock. One option in this case is to book your loved into a short-term stay in a facility that offers respite care, so that their day-to-day needs are taken care of for the duration of their stay. However, if a senior requires ongoing help that is beyond your abilities — for instance, if they are cognitively impaired, or their physical care needs are increasing — this could be a sign they are ready for assisted living.

What suggestions do you have for combating senior isolation during winter? Share your tips with us in the comments below.

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Sarah Stevenson
Sarah Stevenson
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