Combatting the Senior Loneliness Epidemic
Growing older brings with it many challenges that contribute to a more solitary life. One of the biggest issues for seniors is that their social circles shrink as the years go by. Spouses, family members and friends move to senior communities or pass away. Even those who still live close by may be inaccessible due to limited mobility, especially once they can no longer drive.
Common age-related physical changes, such as hearing loss and low vision, can make it difficult to communicate. Many older adults suffer from incontinence, rely on oxygen therapy or require the use of a walker or wheelchair. These situations create logistical obstacles as well as feelings of self-consciousness, further isolating seniors from social situations.
Senior loneliness has serious health implications, too. A 2017 University of California study found that seniors who reported feeling lonely saw a 45% increase in their risk of death. Isolated survey respondents also had a 59% greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts. With results like these, it’s easy to see how loneliness has the potential to accelerate the elderly’s need for assistance from family caregivers or other sources of long-term care. Loneliness is thought to act on the body in a way that is similar to chronic stress. It raises the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the body, which weakens immune responses and contributes to inflammation, diminished mental health, and conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Living alone ups the risk. According to AARP, nearly 90% of seniors say they want to stay in their own homes for a long as possible. There can be financial and emotional benefits to this choice, but it can also lead to social isolation. This is particularly true if a spouse, partner, or close neighbor passes away or leaves because they require inpatient care. Experts have determined that seniors who experience the highest levels of loneliness and isolation more than double their odds of dying within six years.
So what can you do to help alleviate loneliness in your senior loved ones? Here are seven ways you can do to help your elder family members to feel happier and more connected.
1. “Tell me more”. Encourage expression so that you can uncover your senior family member’s hidden interests and passions. You may need to ask questions and dig deep and find out what their interests once were. Keep in mind that these once-loved activities may no longer be of interest or be appropriate for their current abilities. In this case, see if you can adapt these hobbies or discover other fun new pastimes that you can enjoy together.
2. Encourage dining with others. Eating with others is inherently social. Encourage your loved one to share a meal whenever possible, whether it’s with family, a church group or a friendly local eatery. Dining with others is also helps to promote better nutrition, which is crucial but often lacking for the elderly.
3. Promote a sense of purpose. Seniors with a sense of purpose are less likely to submit to the negative effects of social isolation. Anything that involves a group—for example, playing cards or taking a bus trip to a local museum—could be socially healthy. If your loved one can’t come up with any ideas, check out the calendar at the local senior center. They generally have multiple events scheduled most days of the week. Volunteering is also a great way of maintaining a sense of purpose while giving back by helping others.
4. Let them teach you. Everyone likes to feel like they have value, so connect with your loved one by allowing him or her to pass their knowledge on to you. For example, if your father loves to garden, ask him to give you pointers. This not only has the potential to be a great bonding experience, but it can also help restore some of the child-parent dynamic that may have been lost.
5. Make transportation readily more available. Lack of adequate transportation is a primary cause of a senior social isolation. Having a network of family members, friend and neighbors available to give rides to your older loved ones will enable them to maintain social connections and a healthy sense of independence.
6. Consider a move to senior living. Placement in an assisted living community or long-term care facility isn’t for everyone. The success of such a transition depends on the individual and his or her fit with the facility. It also takes time for residents to adapt to and grow comfortable with their new living arrangement and neighbors. It can be a very disorienting experience and may even appear to backfire at first. Provide plenty of gentle encouragement to help your loved one acclimate to his or her new surroundings. One of the best things about senior living is the plentiful opportunities for socialization and fulfillment. These communities not only offer a large group of potential friends who are of a similar age, they also offer numerous events and activities for residents–everything from happy hours, to fitness classes, to trips. With so many options to choose from, your loved one is bound to find activities and people they can enjoy.
7. Give lots of affection. Research has shown that hand-holding and hugging from loved ones can lower stress and promote feelings of well-being. Conversely, people who are deprived of touch often experience decreased well-being. Even if your older relatives aren’t the demonstrative types, offer a quick hug during your greetings and goodbyes.
The keys to addressing senior loneliness are listening closely, observing vigilantly, and encouraging your aging loved ones to share what they’re thinking and feeling. Then, a plan can be developed to help them to better connect. If you have questions about senior isolation or want to learn more about how you can help a loved one, please contact us. Our compassionate, caring team is always available and happy to assist.
About Vaughn Greene Funeral Services: For more than 20 years, Vaughn Greene Funeral Services has been providing a ministry of care to Baltimore’s African American community. As a leading local, minority- and family-owned provider, we promise to provide our highest level of service and respect to families who entrust us to honor their loved one. For more information, please call us at 410.655.0015 or visit us online at https://vaughncgreene.com/.