Helping Seniors Avoid the Loneliness Epidemic

Senior adults playing bridge with woman smiling at camera

Not so long ago, as families created a plan for the well-being of older loved ones, they typically asked questions like “Is Mom’s home safe?” “Can Dad manage his medications?” “Are the folks eating right?” “Can they keep up with home maintenance?”

But today we know that another question is just as important: “How can we keep Mom socially connected?”

Recent research studies tell the tale—social isolation leads to depression and loneliness, both very bad for our health. In March 2018, AARP noted that people who have a circle of family and friends tend to be physically healthier, with better brain health than people who experience loneliness and isolation.

Social connections can even lengthen our lives. The Gerontological Society of America devoted an entire recent issue of their Public Policy & Aging Report to the problem of social isolation among older adults. (Some of the articles are free to read online; you can see them here.) One study, conducted by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., of Brigham Young University, found that “being socially connected significantly reduces the risk for premature mortality, and that lacking social connectedness significantly increases risk. Moreover, these risks exceed those associated with many risk factors that receive substantial public health resources: obesity, air pollution, smoking, and physical inactivity.”

Yet despite this increased awareness of the problem, experts warn that we’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness among seniors. The challenges of aging—decreased mobility, hearing and vision loss, physical and cognitive problems—make it harder to get around. Our modern way of life magnifies the problem: families move away, we live in communities where we need to drive to get anywhere, and we spend more time on our computer than on the front porch greeting neighbors.

This all means that seniors and the families who support their well-being need to make an extra effort to keep them connected. Sometimes it’s best to move to an assisted living or other senior living community, with a program of activities and plenty of company. You may have read recent articles showing that cliques can form among these senior living residents—a “new kid” or resident with disabilities may have trouble finding their social niche. Likening the problem to the high school-themed movie Mean Girls, senior care experts are working on ways to make their communities more inclusive.

Many other seniors choose to stay in their own homes, where they share a history with neighbors and local merchants. Home-dwelling seniors should look into new opportunities, too! Today’s senior centers and Area Agencies on Aging provide classes, support groups, volunteer opportunities, intergenerational programs and many other social events. Experts tell us that online socialization provides benefits as well. And cultural and recreational organizations in your area may offer special programs for people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory loss.

The role of home care

If your family uses professional home care services, or if you’re considering doing so to help keep an older loved one safe at home, make social connection a central part of your care plan. Talk to your loved one and the caregiver about activities and events your loved one would enjoy.

The caregiver can provide transportation so your loved one can continue to visit with friends, exercise, take part in events in their faith community, and go to classes and other outings they enjoy. With the caregiver available to drive and accompany them, your loved one may be more enthusiastic about checking out some new activities, as well.

The caregiver can also assist with bathing, dressing and grooming so your loved one will feel they are putting their best foot forward. Caregivers provide housekeeping services, which helps your loved one feel confident about receiving guests. These services can be provided in your loved one’s home, your home, or in a senior living community.

And what about pets? So many studies show that contact with animals is beneficial. Plus pets are a natural ice breaker—people are more likely to interact when there’s an animal present. Yet sadly, health challenges might mean your loved one has trouble caring for a beloved dog, cat or other animal companion. The caregiver can help, allowing the animal and human bond to remain intact.

The time your loved one and the caregiver spend together isn’t all about medication management and other care tasks. It’s also about the human touch. Caregivers and their clients form connections that are very special. It’s important to hire from an agency that considers your loved one’s preferences and personality as they send a caregiver — and, if the caregiver and your loved one don’t quite click, will happily send another one.

One last thing to consider. When seniors experience health challenges and rely on others for care, they aren’t the only one to suffer a social slump. A study from the Stanford Center for Longevity noted that family caregivers, too, are at risk of social isolation. These family members spend so much of their spare time caring for their loved one that they don’t have time for their usual social activities. That’s not good for the senior or their family! Adding in-home care to the mix lets everyone enjoy an expanded social life. “Mom and I were in each other’s hair,” reports one daughter. “Once we brought in home care, we were both happier. And now when we get together, we can each talk about our day!”

Source: Assisting Hands Home Care in association with IlluminAge. Copyright © IlluminAge, 2018