About 13.8 million people over the age of 65 live alone. As a society, we are starting to take loneliness in older adults more seriously as the aging population grows. But with issues such as quarantine due to a pandemic and families spreading out across the country, loneliness has grown into a larger problem for aging adults.
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How do you know a loved one is lonely? If you ask, they will say no, so it is best to assume that any older adult living alone (even if they are in assisted living) may be lonely. Tackle the problem with a sense of urgency, but use tact. Sometimes it’ll take more than just a phone call, so prepare to be persistent and see how you can best help your loved one combat loneliness.
How Does Loneliness Affect Aging Adults?
You might think that loneliness is a normal part of aging. Loneliness is certainly more common for aging adults, but it is far from normal and can ultimately be harmful. Loneliness is usually a result of social isolation, but not always. Reaching out to older adults during a period of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic has become more complicated and is adding to this long-standing problem for older adults.
The National Institute on Aging highlights research showing a relationship between loneliness and several physical and mental health risk factors.
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Increase mortality
- Depression and anxiety
- Compromised immune system
- Cognitive impairment
It is also hard to quantify just how much mental suffering older adults are experiencing due to loneliness. With the pandemic and stricter visiting protocols to limit infection, seniors in assisted living or nursing homes are particularly vulnerable.
Ironically, older adults who are still alone in their homes have the advantage of family visits and outings. The reason many older adults choose senior communal living is to have access to social engagement.
Who is at Risk?
Almost anyone who lives alone is at risk for loneliness, but other conditions make the situation worse.
Poor health can be a factor, which includes chronic health conditions like heart disease or stroke. Also, those who have dementia and Alzheimer’s may be at risk because of the complicated symptoms and deterioration that comes with these diseases. As people age, they may also develop increasing sensory impairment such as poor sight and poor hearing.
Socially, they may lack transportation or have impaired mobility, making it difficult and dangerous to leave the home. Also as mentioned above, with families moving farther and farther away, some aging adults may be left alone, especially after a spouse dies.
Other things like low income can just add to daily stress. If someone can’t afford help in the home, they become more and more isolated. During the pandemic, older people are understandably reluctant to leave their homes for fear of contracting COVID.
How to Help an Aging Adult Combat Loneliness
Helping an older adult who is lonely is not only possible, it is a necessary responsibility. Even with logistical constraints, there are ways to connect with a loved one. It’s also important to consider that people have different needs and ways of relating. There is no one size fits all, but something is better than nothing until there is a comprehensive plan in place to address loneliness in older adults.
1. Pay attention to the details
The first step to knowing what to do is to pay attention to the details. Does your family member have difficulty hearing? Hearing loss is associated with social isolation and dementia. Is there a problem with mobility?
Try to identify the problems first so you can address those and move to the next step. All the attempts in the world won’t have much of an impact if you don’t help solve the problems that contribute to loneliness.
2. Reach out and connect
Reach out in whatever way you have available to you and do it often. Everyone is busy, and it is easy to let time go by without checking in with your loved one. The best way to make sure you reach out is to schedule some time to talk, weekly if possible, and more often if you both can.
Believe it or not, some seniors prefer an email or text to a phone call. Others don’t have the capability of handling anything other than a phone call. Use the method that your loved one prefers. That way, they will be more comfortable and more likely to engage.
3. Broach the topic of social media
Seniors who connect on Facebook generally love it because they can see what their grandchildren and children are up to. But, they have to be comfortable with technology. That comfort level can be a high hurdle, but it is worth a try.
If your loved one is in assisted living, ask the activities director for some suggestions on who on staff can do some instruction. If your family member is at home, enlist the help of a grandchild to do some teaching. The added benefit is that they get to spend time together.
Even learning to use a computer can open up a world of possibilities, from virtual travel thanks to YouTube to other social media groups based on their interests. Take it one step at a time and be patient and reassuring.
4. Consider hiring caregivers
If your loved one is alone and struggling with everyday tasks, consider hiring a caregiver.
Not only can this person be eyes and ears on any physical problems, but they can also be a companion. A private caregiver can help with technology, provide transportation, and engage in games and puzzles.
5. Consider pets
If your loved one can take care of one, a small pet can make a huge difference. Cats can be easier to take care of since they don’t require daily walking. Most assisted living communities allow small animals. Having the responsibility and companionship of a pet often fills the need to take care of something other than yourself.
6. Acknowledge their religious connection
Was religion important to your loved one? Church or other religious activities may have ceased long ago, but they may still have significance.
Ask about whether this is something your loved one would like back in their life. If so, reach out to religious leaders and let them know. A phone call once in a while might be welcomed.
7. Think about purpose
The loss of a purpose in life is often not appreciated as a significant contributor to loneliness. It can be tough to find meaning in life when you can’t get out, or you had a career or raised children. It will be time for some creative thinking, especially for people who are under quarantine. In normal circumstances, volunteer opportunities are more plentiful and available.
However, there are ways to feel useful. Many organizations across the country are organizing people to make calls to isolated people, and your loved one could be one of them. Call your local Area Agency on Aging to find out about remote volunteer opportunities. If your loved one is in assisted living, reach out to see if there are ways you can help organize activities or connect remotely with other residents.
8. Send or deliver gifts
For someone who is cooped up, receiving fresh flowers or pre-made dinner can brighten someone’s day. Gifts for someone in a nursing home are especially appreciated.
Nursing homes have an institutional feel, and anything that can warm up the environment will be valued. Know that your family member is unlikely to ask for anything, and if you ask them, they will likely refuse. Don’t ask, just do it!
9. Suggest therapy
Many people assume that depression is a normal part of aging. There are risk factors for depression associated with aging, but that doesn’t mean it is normal. Loss of interest in life, appetite changes, weight loss or gain, decreased energy, feelings of helplessness, and pessimism are all signs of depression.
Now, the hard part. How do you convince your loved one to try psychotherapy? Medicare covers therapy either by phone or computer so it isn’t necessary to leave the house. Assuming you find a therapist that accepts Medicare, cost should not be an issue.
Discuss with your family member the benefits of having someone to talk with. Normalize the experience by presenting evidence showing that talk therapy works as well if not better than medications. Adding additional medications has its own risks for an older adult. Suggest a negotiated trial period of a couple of months. If it doesn’t work out, you can both talk about it and move on if necessary.
Ways to Help an Aging Adult in Your Life Combat Loneliness
The descriptor and phrase “combat loneliness” is not an exaggeration. Confront the problem head-on, but with compassion. Find the right fit to alleviate loneliness for your loved one.
Try a few of our ideas and you will find what resonates. It helps a lot to keep trying, and who knows? Maybe you’ll find something new to share with your loved one as well.
- “Social Isolation, Loneliness in Older People Pose Health Risks.” National Institute on Aging. www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks
- “Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html
- “Older Adults and Depression.” National Institute of Mental Health. www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/older-adults-and-depression/index.shtml#:~:text=Research%20also%20suggests%20that%20for,already%20taking%20for%20other%20conditions.