Our government is currently focusing on the mental health of elders, particularly the loneliness they experience. For those with aging loved ones, pandemic related social isolation exacerbated what was already an underlying problem. Many elders do not have consistent, meaningful connections with enough others to prevent the sadness and hopelessness so many experience every day.
The Face Of Social Isolation
In reflecting on this, I am reminded of many lonely, isolated elders I visited long ago in my career as a public health nurse. My job involved going to the homes of those in my caseload, addressing their multiple needs and providing hands-on care. I assessed what was needed beyond my own work, and made many referrals to resources so those needs could be met. I remember a typical client, an older woman in her 80’s. She lived alone in an apartment, had limited mobility, was hard of hearing, and did not have transportation. She had no family anywhere nearby. I visited once a week to provide care. On every visit, she exclaimed that she was so happy to see me! I was the only human she saw face to face for an entire week except for the meal delivery person (Meals on Wheels) who stopped by briefly each day to drop off food.
That is what social isolation looks like. Back in those days, there was no internet, nor cell phones. Fewer resources existed than we have now. Nonetheless, I referred her to a program called Friendly Visitors, so that a volunteer would call her on the phone every day. (Here is an example of such a program.) They enrolled her, and she was happy to get 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 about. She went. I learned that these changes made a big difference in her life. But without a visiting nurse to be with her in person, to see what things were like for her, and a referral to local resources, she might have faded away slowly, a sad, depressed woman who was not able to find her way out of that loneliness. Even if you are far away from your elders, know how they spend their days. Step in to help when possible.
What Families Can Do
As an aging consultant, I hear about lonely elders often. Some resist efforts made by family to help. Some elders do need a repeated nudge to get outside and engage more with others. Some flatly refuse. You can’t force them. Some need a lot of encouragement to make changes.
If any client at AgingParents.com seeks advice about an isolated and sad aging parent, here are some suggestions I make to these families:
- Call your aging loved one every day. The call need not be long. Offer an update as to what you are up to and ask your elder what they are doing today. Tell them you care, every time. Small things matter!
- Do the research in your aging parents’ community as to what resources exist for seniors. Friendly visitors, transportation, senior centers, games, exercise programs, community classes, and other social services may be available. Your aging loved one may not know how to find these things that they could enjoy. Suggest what you think could 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, senior center or group. This may encourage them to get out of the habit of staying home all the time, which continues social isolation and health risks.
- If your loved one seems depressed and unwilling to do anything, seek medical evaluation and treatment for depression. This is an often overlooked condition in older folks that goes untreated because physicians may miss it and the elder does not express how they feel. Medication and talk therapy combined can reduce or eliminate symptoms and make a world of difference. Treatment for depression in elders is often very effective.
- Watch over your aging parents’ use of the internet and phone. Ripoff artists abound and are very clever at exploiting aging parents’ loneliness. The relationships the thieves carefully establish by frequent contact, phone calls and flattering words are a trap. They are after money. Your monitoring, asking questions and paying attention can prevent financial abuse.
Yes there is a loneliness pandemic and many elders feel lonely. And we can all do something to help reduce their sadness and emotional pain. We can be aware, observant, and take the time to express kindness to those who are isolated. It can be for your aging parent, neighbor, or anyone you know. Commit to making one phone call to one older person who lives alone and follow up on it. By doing this simple act, you become part of the solution.
Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Attorney, AgingParents.com
If you and your family meet resistance by an elder who isolates and you need guidance, get it from our nurse-lawyer, psychologist team at AgingParents.com. Call for an appointment today at 866-962-4464 or contact us online. Relieve your distress!