In March 2018, AARP noted that people who have a circle of family and close 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.) One study, conducted by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., of Brigham Young University, found that “being socially connected significantly reduces the risk for premature mortality, and that lacking social connectedness significantly increases risk. Moreover, these risks exceed those associated with many risk factors that receive substantial public health resources: obesity, air pollution, smoking, and physical inactivity.”
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. 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. Experts tell us that online socialization provides benefits as well. And cultural and recreational organizations in your area may offer special programs for people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease or other memory loss.
A Well Trained Caregiver can make the difference.
If your family is thinking about to use professional home care services, or if you’re considering doing so to help keep an older loved one safe at home or active and well connected in an Assisted Living Facility, make the social connection a central part of your care plan. Talk to your loved one and the caregiver about activities and events your loved one would enjoy.
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 fact that the company goes beyond casual and recent friends and let her visit family and other older friends give another level of interaction especially for seniors who feel lonely and start having short memory problems.
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. Yet sadly, health challenges might mean your loved one has trouble caring for a beloved dog, cat or another animal companion. The caregiver can help, allowing the animal and human bond to remain intact. If the senior is in an Assisted Living Facility a caregiver may set up visits to voluntary pets.
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. A study from the Stanford Center for Longevity noted that family caregivers, too, are at risk of social isolation. 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. “Mom and I were in each other’s hair,” reports one daughter. “Once we brought in home care, we were both happier. And now when we get together, we can each talk about our day!”