How to Combat Loneliness in a Nursing Home: 10 Tips

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Certified Care Manager, Aging Life Care Professional, and National Master Guardian Emeritus

Living in a nursing home (as opposed to a skilled nursing facility)  is a situation almost no one wants, but sometimes it is necessary. Unfortunately, nursing homes have been in the news due to the excessive loss of life due to COVID. 

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Along with deaths due to COVID, there have been reports of long-standing infection control and staffing issues. There is much in the nursing home industry to be concerned about, but when your loved one has to move to a nursing home, loneliness is also a significant concern. Even before lockdowns prevented family members from visiting nursing homes, loneliness has been a difficult issue for many seniors. 

Tackling this problem requires a multipronged approach from everyone involved in a nursing home resident’s life. It isn’t simply one person who has the responsibility to help combat loneliness in a nursing home. As a concerned family member or friend, you can take concrete steps to recognize loneliness and do something about it.

Why Do Nursing Home Residents Feel Lonely?

Nursing home residents feel lonely for a variety of reasons. Nursing home care is the highest and most complex level of care outside a hospital setting. There is 24-hour nursing as well as medical interventions available to people who have serious and, in some cases, life-threatening conditions. Understanding why a nursing home resident feels lonely can help you intervene in meaningful ways.

The condition of the resident

If you or a loved one is in a nursing home, it is likely that any less restrictive environment is not adequate to meet your needs. Illness and infirmity are depressing and demoralizing, no matter how old you are. The likelihood of recovery may not be possible, which means limited mobility and access to anything beyond the immediate nursing home environment. Reduced autonomy and independence can also contribute to loneliness.

The environment of a nursing home

Nursing homes are for nursing care, and as a result, most aren’t conducive to socializing. Many nursing homes are short-staffed, and facilitating resident gatherings is not a priority. Older nursing homes have an institutional feel, and most rooms are shared with someone else, so there is little privacy, and of course, you don’t get to choose your roommate. 

Limited activity selection

Although nursing homes offer activities, the selection can be pretty limited. For one thing, most of the space in nursing homes is dedicated to resident care, not leisure and recreational activities.

For example, in assisted living there can be a theater, gym, cultural outings, and lectures on-site, along with a vast array of activities to appeal to almost anyone. If you are confined to bed and need significant assistance to attend an activity, it can be challenging to engage with others. If you have had favorite hobbies, you may be unable to participate in any of those.

Few visits from family and friends

Chances are, if you have a loved one in a nursing home, you may visit less frequently due to work and other family responsibilities. Or you could be burned out as a caregiver and need a break. Perhaps seeing your loved one in a nursing home is painful, and you avoid it.

Your relationship may be the only one that your loved one relies on, and not having visits can exacerbate loneliness and depression. In many cases, social isolation is a primary contributor to loneliness. 

What Are the Dangers of Loneliness in a Nursing Home?

There are quantifiable dangers associated with loneliness in any situation. These dangers can worsen in a nursing home because your loved one’s medical and psychological condition is already compromised.

Depression and anxiety

Loneliness is associated with a higher incidence of depression and anxiety. Any mental health disorder makes it that much more challenging to engage, recover and have a quality of life. Depression can cause a lack of motivation to participate in physical therapy and other medical interventions.

A vicious cycle can occur where loneliness contributes to depression, which decreases the desire to interact with others, making the loneliness worse.  

Compromised recovery 

Loneliness can cause almost any medical condition to worsen. If you or your loved one is in a nursing home and hopes to improve, loneliness may make a recovery much harder. Social isolation and loneliness increases a person’s risk of premature death

Not feeling safe

When someone is in a nursing home and feels alone, they may start to feel afraid and develop distrust in the care they receive. Advocacy from someone is a critical part of feeling secure in a nursing home. If there are problems with staff or care, not having someone on your side can leave a person feeling demoralized and helpless.

What Does This Loneliness Look and Feel Like?

Loneliness can look and feel like different things for different people, but most people share general characteristics. A straightforward action to take is to ask the person if they are lonely and how they feel.  

  • Tiredness or fatigue. These can be symptoms of depression that result from loneliness. A lonely person may lack the energy to engage or participate in activities because of tiredness.
  • Lack of motivation. A lack of motivation to be with others or attend to personal health and well-being can be signs of a lack of motivation. Without others to talk to and connect with, you can feel like you live in a vacuum and are uninspired to make things better.
  • Hopelessness. This feeling can emerge partly because it seems like things will never change. When someone feels like no one cares about them, it is hard to think about the future positively. 
  • Anger and irritability. When someone is lonely, they can appear to be angry and irritable. Sometimes lashing out at others is a way of feeling in control or expressing feelings. Increased irritability can also be a sign of depression.
  • Poor sleep. Poor sleep can have many causes, but loneliness could be one. Insomnia or frequent waking during the night are symptoms.
  • Loss of appetite. You may have heard that even in home settings when someone doesn’t have another person to eat with, they eat less. The food in a nursing home may not be appealing, and other residents may not want to talk during meal times. Loss of appetite and weight loss can be signs of loneliness.

Tips for Helping a Loved One to Feel Less Lonely in a Nursing Home

If you have a loved one in a nursing home, you can help them feel less lonely. You may have to try several different ideas to find what works best. 

1. Visit

In-person visits are one of the best ways to help someone feel less lonely. If in-person visits are not possible, arrange for your loved one to have a device capable of handling video calls. The critical thing about visits is to make them more frequently than you think your loved one needs. Be prepared with topics to discuss and try your best to have a positive attitude.

2. Advocate

Speak with the staff and activities director about getting your loved one more involved in activities. Ask about the barriers to participation and how to overcome those. If your loved one has a specific hobby, try to find out how to make that possible. Bring supplies to facilitate an activity your loved one wants to do if necessary.

3. Take your loved one out of the facility

Taking someone out of a nursing home can be a lengthy and involved process, depending on their condition and disability. But if it can be done safely, take the time to go somewhere. Getting out can be a positive experience for all parties involved. Even taking someone outside into the sun for a brief time can improve their mood.

4. Provide personal objects

Most nursing home rooms are very small and don’t allow much furniture or personal objects. But talk with your loved one about what photos or other things are important to them and do your best to provide them. Family photos and other memorabilia can help your loved one feel connected. If you are a friend, think about potential gifts for someone in a nursing home. Additionally as a friend, you can visit as much as possible. 

5. Ask religious or spiritual leaders to visit

If your loved one has a religious or spiritual attachment, make arrangements for someone from a church or group to visit. Most organizations are happy to provide someone for regular visits.

Tips for Helping You to Feel Less Lonely in a Nursing Home

If you are in a nursing home, it can feel next to impossible to think about what to do to feel less lonely. It takes some energy and motivation to feel less lonely, and we have some tips to get you started.

6. Advocate for yourself

As hard as it might be, politely and firmly advocate for yourself. If there is an activity you want to attend and need assistance getting there, ask for it. If you have a specific hobby, you want to pursue a talk with the activities director about making that possible.

7. Ask for visits

If your friends and family aren’t visiting enough, simply ask them for more visits. Let them know that you want and appreciate their visits. If you don’t have family or friends in the area, ask the nursing home staff if aging services or a faith-based organization has volunteer visitors.

8. Consider an iPad or laptop

Any kind of device where you can connect with the internet can help combat loneliness, as there are online groups and chat rooms. You can order one and ask staff to help you set it up. 

9. Try to make friends

As hard as it might be, try and make friends with other patients. You may have to compromise some of your standards, but interacting with people has long-lasting benefits for both of you. Strike up a conversation and see where it goes.

10. Volunteer

You may not have the mobility to volunteer in the nursing home, but you can make phone calls. There are several phone pal programs where you can call and talk with others who need social connection.

How to Combat Loneliness in Nursing Homes 

Loneliness is a serious problem that can affect any age group. The environment of a nursing home and the residents who live there can contribute to loneliness.  But with a practical and energetic approach, you or your loved one can create an atmosphere where loneliness is less likely to occur.

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