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Avoiding Senior Loneliness
Categories: Caregiving Articles, Senior Care Tips | Posted: 4/14/2014 | Views: 4703

People need companionship. "Older adults who maintain meaningful, satisfying relationships weather life's stressors to emerge happier, healthier and wiser than people who do not," says psychologist John Cacioppo, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, in a USA Today Article about loneliness.  People in one study, who reported feeling lonely, had a 43% increased risk of death. And elderly people are often lonely.

How Many Seniors Feel Lonely?

It is estimated that almost half (47%) of women over the age of 75 live alone and 18% of all seniors over 65 live alone. In research conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, 2/3 of the seniors who reported being lonely lived with a spouse or partner! While this may be surprising, it also lends credence to the notion that you can be lonely even when surrounded by people. Quality of relationships matter as well.

Then, it is important to consider the seniors who live in nursing facilities. Moving to a nursing facility can be very disorienting and essentially cuts off a senior from the rest of the family and from the community. While there are many “programs” to help, what is often missing is natural participation in daily life in a community of people of all ages. Opportunities for contributing meaningfully to society are often lacking once children move away and careers are over. Staying engaged with mixed groups of different ages is often very challenging for seniors and elderly people due to a lack of opportunities.

Guilt and the Adult Child

Many adult children feel burdened by a sense of duty to maintain connection to an elderly parent or feel guilty if they are not doing so. It can be painful knowing that you may be the only source of social contact for another person, particularly if you are already working, caring for children, or have other obligations. And, the harsh reality is, some seniors do not necessarily want to spend time with their adult children and would be relieved to have a daughter or son visit less often. Each relationship is different. But guilt and duty are unlikely to lead to a satisfying relationship for anyone. Relationships should be mutually enjoyable and it is important to work toward that end.

Nursing Home Loneliness

Nursing homes are often also a difficult challenge for adult children. Some people have discomfort when first entering a nursing home that keeps them from visiting. But, visits are so important to people who have no other way of engaging with the outside world. Once in a nursing home, social contacts are limited to who happens to be around. It is okay to inquire about how often a person would like a visit and when. Some days in nursing homes may be more social than others depending on activity schedules, etc. So, don’t be afraid to ask your loved one or a nurse about which days or times are best and how often rather than guess.

If you are having trouble visiting, consider asking other family members to also visit. If you have siblings, nieces, nephews, or others who may have been close to the person – ask them to take on certain regular visits! This may be difficult, but you may be surprised at how rewarding these visits can become for others who may have just needed a nudge or an invitation to spend more time with someone.

What Can We Do About Elderly Loneliness?

Other countries may be ahead of the US in terms of understanding the social needs of elderly people. Although quite controversial and likely not to happen here, in China, they have passed laws requiring adult children to visit their parents! And less extreme, there are programs like the one in the UK to “End Lonliness.”

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I think it also takes a village to help our older relatives. When someone relies completely on one person to meet social needs, it is not only hard on that one person - it is also limiting to the senior and limits opportunities for other meaningful relationships. Even if one person – say a teen – only goes out to the movies with a senior once a month, it is something different and enjoyable that maybe you cannot offer in the same way. Expanding the village may help!

Programs aside, seniors need real and meaningful ways to naturally engage in society without confining them to a non-profit “campaign.” As a society, we need to fully incorporate seniors into all levels and areas of common life activities. This brings a sense of purpose and meaning and eliminates loneliness. Mixed age activities and projects can help.

Loneliness at Home

Some seniors live with caregivers or other family members and are isolated inside the home!  To avoid this type of isolation, get creative with ways to engage an elderly family member with the rest of the family.  Finding activities that are enjoyable to the elderly person and other family members is key.  One outreach program has everyone in the family list their favorite activities and then see where there are overlaps.   For instance, a senior may enjoy cooking, eating out, visiting a park, or watching a mystery on tv.  It may turn out that a child in the home also like going to the park or another adult loves the same kind of tv show.  Making "dates" even inside the home and scheduling them can provide the regular ongoing type of engagement that wards off loneliness.



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