How to Combat Senior Loneliness
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Senior loneliness is a disease that can and should be treated. But how?
We live in an age where we can communicate with friends and family members across the country and around the globe with a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a smart phone screen.
However, despite advances in communications technology and the increasing connections it brings, research indicates that, as a society, we are lonelier than we have ever been. Perhaps no other age group feels the keen sting of loneliness more than the elderly.
Why Are Older Adults so Lonely?
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. Age-related changes in one’s physical condition, such as hearing loss, mobility changes, and low vision, can make it so difficult to communicate that it doesn’t seem worth the effort anymore.
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. The changes listed above are factors, but 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.
The Consequences of Senior Loneliness
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. A University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) study found that participants 60 years old and older who reported feeling lonely saw a 45 percent increase in their risk of death. Isolated survey respondents also had a 59 percent greater risk of mental and physical decline than their more social counterparts, a potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease. This decline manifested specifically in participants’ abilities to perform activities of daily living (ADLs), the six basic tasks that are necessary for truly independent living. In other words, loneliness has the potential to accelerate a senior’s need for assistance from a family caregiver or another source of long-term care.
Ways to Alleviate Loneliness in the Elderly
Listen and observe. “We often don’t listen enough to the people we love,” laments Tina Tessina, PhD, 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.” Encouraging them to express themselves can help you discover what interests and passions lay dormant, just waiting to be rekindled.
Bridge the generation gap. According to Smith, caregivers can play a vital role in fostering a relationship between a senior and their youngest relatives. Grandkids often see their grandparents as either crazy or boring, when they should consider their elders sources of valuable wisdom and fun. Try to come up with ways to help the oldest and the youngest generations of your family spend time together, whether in person, by phone or via mail.
Consider senior living. For some seniors, no amount of effort encourages them to come out of their shell. It may take a large change to get them to reignite their interest in people and activities. While placement in a senior living community or a long-term care facility might seem like a drastic decision, it often is one that allows your loved one to blossom in a new and engaging social environment.
Family members and staff should provide gentle encouragement to help new residents acclimate, meet new people and participate in activities and events. One of the best parts of senior living (aside from receiving necessary care) is that opportunities for socialization and fulfillment are available right outside a resident’s bedroom door.