Do you know that spending most of the time at home can harm the health of older adults? A study published in the November 22, 2017 issue of the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that older adults who seldom leave their homes don’t live as long as those who get out and about. And the reason is the lack of social connections.
Seniors with health problems lived longer if they left the home often and keep socially connected. Said study author Dr. Jeremy Jacobs, of the Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem, “What is interesting is that the improved survival associated with getting out of the house frequently was also observed among people with low levels of physical activity, and even those with impaired mobility.”
Other recent research studies show how social isolation leads to depression and loneliness, In March 2018, AARP noted that people who have a circle of family and friends tend to be physically healthier, with better brain health than people who experience loneliness and isolation.
Social connections can even lengthen our lives. The Gerontological Society of America devoted an entire recent issue of their Public Policy & Aging Report to the problem of social isolation among older adults. (Some of the articles are free to read online; you can see them here.)
Yet despite this increased awareness of the problem, experts warn that we’re experiencing an epidemic of loneliness among seniors. The challenges of aging—decreased mobility, hearing and vision loss, physical and cognitive problems—make it harder to get around. Our modern way of life magnifies the problem: families move away, we live in communities where we need to drive to get anywhere, and we spend more time on our computer than on the front porch greeting neighbours.
This all means that seniors and the families who support their well-being need to make an extra effort to keep them connected. Sometimes it’s best to move to an assisted living or other senior living community, with a program of activities and plenty of company. But, assisted living facilities have their cons. You may have read recent articles showing that cliques can form among these senior living residents—a “new kid” or resident with disabilities may have trouble finding their social niche. Likening the problem to the high school-themed movie Mean Girls, senior care experts are working on ways to make their communities more inclusive.
Many other seniors choose to stay in their own homes, where they share a history with neighbours and local merchants. Home-dwelling seniors should look into new opportunities, too! Today’s senior centres and Area Agencies on Aging provide classes, support groups, volunteer opportunities, intergenerational programs and many other social events.
The role of home care
If you’re considering using Home Care services for an older loved one, it is important to make the social connection a central part of the care plan.
The caregiver can provide transportation so your loved one can continue to visit with friends, exercise, take part in events in their faith community, and go to classes and other outings they enjoy. With the caregiver available to drive and accompany them, your loved one may be more enthusiastic about checking out some new activities, as well.
The caregiver can also assist with bathing, dressing and grooming so your loved one will feel they are putting their best foot forward. Caregivers provide housekeeping services, which helps your loved one feel confident about receiving guests. These services can be provided in your loved one’s home, your home, or in a senior living community.
And what about pets?
So many studies show that contact with animals is beneficial. Plus pets are a natural icebreaker. People are more likely to interact when there’s an animal present, but health challenges might mean your loved one has trouble caring for a beloved dog or cat. The caregiver can help, allowing the animal and human bond to remain intact.
The time your loved one and the caregiver spend together isn’t all about medication management and other care tasks. It’s also about the human touch. Caregivers and their clients form connections that are very special. It’s important to hire from an agency that considers your loved one’s preferences and personality as they send a caregiver — and, if the caregiver and your loved one don’t quite click, will happily send another one.
One last thing to consider. When seniors experience health challenges and rely on others for care, they aren’t the only one to suffer a social slump, caregivers, too. These family members spend so much of their spare time caring for their loved one that they don’t have time for their usual social activities. That’s not good for the senior or their family! Adding in-home care to the mix lets everyone enjoy an expanded social life.