For Your Health – Loneliness & the Elderly

Age brings many difficult changes that contribute to a more solitary life. One of the biggest issues for seniors is that their social circles begin to shrink as the years go by. friends, significant others and family members move away or pass away. Even those who still live close by may be inaccessible due to limited mobility, especially once a senior can no longer drive safely. Age-related changes in one’s physical condition, such as hearing loss and low vision, can make it so difficult to communicate that it doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore.

Many older adults who suffer from incontinence, are on oxygen therapy or need to use a mobility aid to get around, not only face logistical obstacles when it comes to leaving the house but they must also overcome feeling self-conscious about these “obvious” sign of aging.

Even when a senior is being taken care of by family caregivers, there is often little attention paid to deep, engaging communication between a senior and the rest of the family. Caregivers are usually so worn out from juggling their day-to-day responsibilities that they have little time or energy left for truly meeting a senior’s emotional and social needs.

In addition to the damaging mental effects of feeling that one lacks fulfilling personal relationships, feeling lonely can also take a toll on one’s physical health. People 60 years old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45% increase in their risk of death. Isolated elders have a 59% greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts. Loneliness has the potential to accelerate a senior’s need for assistance from a family caregiver or another source of long-term care.

Loneliness is thought to act on the body in a way that is like chronic stress. It raises the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in the body, which impairs immune responses and contributes to inflammation, mental illness, and condition like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes.

Loneliness is contagious. Older adults who feel lonesome are more prone to behave in ways that may cause other people to not want to be around them. They isolate themselves by pushing people away and not making efforts to engage with others.

Ways to Alleviate Loneliness:

  • Listen and observe. Encouraging the elderly to express themselves can help discover what interest and passions lay dormant, just waiting to be rekindled. Try to awaken those forgotten activities. Do your best to help them discover ways to adapt these hobbies or find new pastimes altogether.
  • Develop a strategy to defeat seclusion. Once you know what your loved one enjoys doing, you can use this information to develop a personalized loneliness eradication plan. Sometimes out elders just need a creative push to step outside their comfort zone. Every week their calendar should contain at least 3 to 4 activities to get your loved one out of the house.
  • Let them teach you. Connect with loved ones by allowing them to pass some hard-earned knowledge on to you. If your mother loves to embroider, ask her to teach you how to do it. This not only has the potential to be a great bonding experience, but it can also help restore a bit of balance to the child-parent dynamic that may have been lost once caregiving began.
  • Bridge the generation gap. Try to come up with ways to help the oldest and the youngest generations to spend time together, whether in person, by phone, or via email. Seniors have the potential to contribute if they can remain engaged. An unengaged elderly adult will experience cognitive decline at a much faster rate than a senior who is mentally stimulated by interactions with other people. Sending a card, sharing a meal, or calling for 30 minutes a couple of times a week can go a long way to helping a senior feel loved and connected.