Staying connected with older family and friends as they age is extremely important in order to help them avert loneliness and isolation. This is especially true if they are living alone without family or friends nearby, during the holidays, and during winter months when it can be cold and dark, causing seniors to stay inside more and away from social activities.
Despite the prevalence of computers and cellphones to stay virtually connected, it’s still easy to feel lonely, particularly during the holiday season. And the greatest effect is felt by seniors. Below are some facts about loneliness and isolation, symptoms to watch for, and ways to help aging loved ones stay socially connected.
Loneliness or Isolation?
Loneliness and isolation are important health risks in the senior population. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but researchers have found distinct differences. While social isolation arises when a person does not have enough people to interact with, loneliness is a subjective experience of distress over not having enough social relationships or not enough contact with people.
A person can be socially isolated but not feel lonely, whereas an individual with a seemingly large social network can still experience loneliness. People who are lonely are more likely to have low self-worth and to believe that other people will reject them. Some recent findings about seniors and loneliness include:
- Eighteen percent of seniors live alone, while 43 percent report feeling lonely on a regular basis
- Lonely seniors are more likely to experience a faster decline in health.
- One in seven people with Alzheimer’s disease live alone
- Older adults who feel lonely are more prone to behave in ways that may cause other people to not want to be around them.
- Two-thirds of the older adults in a recent University of California San Francisco study who said that they were lonely were either married or living with a partner of some kind.
Watch for These Symptoms
Loneliness often goes hand-in-hand with depression. Signs of loneliness or depression can differ from person to person and can often be brought on by such things as new or changing medications, grief over the loss of a loved one, or even the development of a new physical or mental problem, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease. In fact, physical complaints, such as arthritis pain or worsening headaches are often the predominant symptom of depression in the elderly, according to Helpguide.org.
If several of the following signs are present, it may be time for your loved one to see their doctor or talk to a professional psychologist. Some signs of loneliness or depression may include:
- Sadness or feelings of despair
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Loss of interest in socializing or hobbies
- Weight loss or loss of appetite
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Lack of motivation and energy
- Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, oversleeping, or daytime sleepiness)
- Loss of self-worth (worries about being a burden, feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing)
- Slowed movement and speech
- Increased use of alcohol or other drugs
- Fixation on death; thoughts of suicide
- Memory problems, slowed movement or speech
- Neglecting personal care (skipping meals, forgetting meds, neglecting personal hygiene)
Ways to Keep in Touch
Keeping in touch with your loved one on a regular basis as well as encouraging them to plan regular social interaction with friends and neighbors is important to helping them overcome loneliness and prevent isolation. Here are a few ways caregivers can help:
- Listen and observe: Encouraging a senior to express themselves can help you discover what interests and passions lay dormant, just waiting to be brought to light. “We often don’t listen enough to the people we love,” laments Tina Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty.” According to Tessina, “saying ‘tell me more’ is a gift you can give from your heart.”
- Develop a strategy to defeat seclusion: Once you know what your loved one enjoys doing, you can use this information to develop a personalized plan to help them defeat loneliness. Does your loved one like to cook and entertain? Help them prepare their favorite meals and plan a small get-together with trusting friends. Did they used to love gardening? Help them set up a small garden that makes it easy for them maintain and access. Did your favorite senior used to sing or play an instrument? Sing with them or encourage them to join a community choral group or orchestral club.
- Let them teach you: Spend time learning about something your loved one is passionate about. Their years of experience and vast knowledge is something to be shared and can create a great bonding experience between a senior and caregiver, child or grandchild.
- Bridge the generational gap: Find ways to help the oldest and youngest generations of your family spend time together. Grandparents offer a wealth of knowledge that seniors can pass onto younger generations. Additionally, research has shown that unengaged elderly adults will experience cognitive decline much faster than a senior who is mentally stimulated by interactions with others.
- It’s the thought that counts: Reach out to aging loved ones with a simple gesture, such as sending a card telling them you are thinking about them, dropping off a little gift or their favorite food, or calling for a quick chat once or twice a week. It doesn’t have to be a grand, time-consuming gesture. Simple thoughtfulness can go a long way to making a senior feel loved and connected to the rest of the family.
When You Can’t Be There
It can be difficult for both your loved one and you if you live out of town and can’t be there to interact with them on a regular basis. While phone calls and emails can help keep the connection alive, seniors still need regular face-to-face interaction to prevent feeling lonely or becoming isolated.
Senior living communities like ours have experienced staff who are dedicated to helping seniors schedule classes, activities and outings to keep them social and active. If you are a family member who lives out of town, or a friend who cannot visit as frequently as you would like, contact a member of our staff to check-in between family visits.
At our community seniors can age in place with caring, professional staff, numerous amenities and activities, and assistance every step of the way. Explore our website or call us today to talk to our staff concerning the services and amenities that we offer.