Our government is currently focusing on the mental health of the elderly, particularly the loneliness they experience. For those with aging loved ones, pandemic-related social isolation exacerbated what was already an underlying problem. Many seniors do not have consistent, meaningful connections with enough other people to avoid the sadness and hopelessness that so many experience every day.
The face of social isolation
Reflecting on this, I am reminded of many lonely and isolated seniors that I have visited long ago in my career as a public health nurse. My job was to go into the homes of my cases, address their many needs, and provide hands-on care. I assessed what was needed beyond my own work and made many references to resources so that those needs could be met. I remember a typical customer, a woman over 80 years old. She lived alone in an apartment, she had limited mobility, was hard of hearing and had no transportation. She had no family anywhere near. She visited him once a week to provide care. At each visit, she would exclaim that she was so happy to see me! I was the only human being I saw face to face for an entire week, except for the meal delivery guy (Meals on Wheels) who stopped by briefly every day to drop off food.
This is what social isolation looks like. In those days, there was no internet, no cell phones. There were fewer resources. However, I referred her to a program called Friendly Visitors, so that a volunteer would call her on the phone every day. (Here is a example such a program.) They signed her up, and she was happy to receive that daily call. I referred her to the van service in her city, so she could get to the senior center, something she had never known. She was. I learned that these small changes made a big difference in her life. But without a visiting nurse to be with her in person, to see how things were for her, and a referral to local resources, she might have slowly faded away, a sad, depressed woman who couldn’t find her way out of it. that loneliness
What can families do
As an aging consultant, I often hear about lonely old people. Some resist family efforts to help. Some seniors need a repeated nudge to get out and interact more with others. If any AgingParents.com customer is seeking advice about an isolated and sad aging parent, here are some suggestions I make to these families:
- Call your elderly loved one every day. The call does not have to be long. Offer an update on what he’s up to and ask your senior what he’s up to today. Tell them you care, always. Little things matter!
- Do research in the community of your elderly parents. as to what resources exist for older people. Friendly visitors, transportation, senior centers, games, exercise programs, community classes, and other social services may be available. Your elderly loved one may not know how to find these things that they might enjoy. Suggest what you think might be beneficial.
- If you live close enough to visit in person, do it, even when you have a busy life. Schedule it. Offer to accompany your elder to an activity, center or group for the elderly. This can encourage them to break the habit of staying home all the time, which continues social isolation and health risks.
- If your loved one seems depressed and is not willing to do anything, seek medical evaluation and treatment for depression. This is an often overlooked condition in older people that goes untreated because doctors can miss it and the older person doesn’t express how they feel. The combination of medication and talk therapy can reduce or eliminate symptoms and make a world of difference. Treatment of depression in the elderly is often very effective.
- Keep an eye on your elderly parents’ internet and phone usage. Scammers abound and are very skilled at exploiting the loneliness of aging parents. Relationships that thieves carefully establish through frequent contacts, phone calls, and flattering words are a trap. They are after the money. Your follow-up, questions, and attention can prevent financial abuse.
Yes, there is a pandemic of loneliness and many older people feel alone. And we can all do something to help reduce their sadness and emotional pain. We can be mindful, observant, and take the time to express kindness to those who are isolated. It can be for your elderly parent, neighbor, or anyone you know. Commit to making a phone call to a senior living alone and follow up. By doing this simple act, you become part of the solution.