“The only way that people are going to know I’m dead is from the smell in the hallway,” said David. David is 82 and has lived in a condo in Ottawa for 20 years now. His wife died many years ago, and his son lives in British Columbia, more than 4000 kilometres away.
David only contacts his son through email once a week, and his best friend just died of cancer.
“Aging is a process of losing,” he said,
“You lose your health, career, and the people who used to be around you after a certain age. The only thing you gain is loneliness.”
There are billions of older adults living the same isolated life as David. Senior isolation is not a disease, but anyone who has it usually becomes voiceless and hopeless – all they do is wait to die alone.
What is senior isolation?
Senior isolation is a term that indicates social isolation in older adults. People of various ages can be affected by social isolation. And loneliness in the elderly causes more serious problems than in younger individuals.
According to a National Institute of Aging report, approximately 28 percent of people over 65 years old in the U.S. live in one-person households. However, someone is living alone doesn’t mean they are experiencing loneliness. There are a few factors that contribute to senior isolation, which includes:
– Bereavement of a significant other
– Retirement from work
– Loss of networks with friends
– Change in the living environment
– Mobility or sensory impairment
– Low income or limited financial resources
– Psychological or cognitive issues
– Language/racial/sexual orientation/gender identity barriers
– Lack of transportation or fear toward driving and travelling
Although the causation may differ from person to person, the negative effect of senior isolation could be almost the same for every family.
What is the impact?
It starts with health effects. We all know that loneliness is never a pleasant experience for us humans. A report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) suggests that social isolation has proven adverse effects on seniors’ mental health, including anxiety, depression, and cognitive decline that’s highly related to Alzheimer’s disease. The study also shows that chronic isolation induces physical issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, and even causes premature death.
Besides the direct effects, isolation also causes seniors to remain trapped in the vicious cycle of elder abuse. People with poor social support are more prone to being emotionally and physically mistreated. As the abuse worsens, a senior who undergoes abuse will likely become even more socially isolated.
A study in 2017 suggests that seniors who endure abuse at the hands of a trusted helper may withdraw from socializing due to feelings of shame. Some seniors even
Believe that abuse is common and even acceptable as time goes by. These circumstances keep the abuse victim mute, thus reinforcing the isolation-abuse cycle.
Senior isolation has a detrimental effect on seniors’ families as well.
Elders who are socially isolated and have poor social networks tend to have low-quality relationships with those closest to them, including their family members and friends. This can be attributed to the weakened social skills and a lack of feeling safe caused by chronic isolation. Therefore, seniors living in isolation would make their families feel disconnected and increase their worries when they cannot be around.
In addition, senior isolation is a risk factor for stroke and dementia (report from Centers of Disease Control and Prevention), increasing the family’s burden of taking care of the seniors.
However, as a growing epidemic in modern society, it is impossible to spot someone’s loneliness. The persons going through loneliness may not even recognize it themselves. Here are some signs to look out for:
Signs of Senior Isolation
– Decreased energy
– Feeling foggy or unable to concentrate
– Having trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual
– Change in eating habits: overeating or loss of appetite
– Loss of interest in hobbies
– Loss of interest in socializing
– Increased shopping
– Declining cognitive abilities
– Interacting with/trusting suspicious people
If your loved one is experiencing all the symptoms above, you need to be alerted that chronic loneliness might develop in your family. However, it doesn’t mean that you are in a hopeless position. There are many ways to overcome senior isolation, and CareStory is here, providing you with some valuable tips to help.
If your loved one is experiencing isolation, you can:
Make regular visits or callsVisit your loved one as often as you can. If you live far away from them or are always on a tight schedule, try to make calls regularly. It is essential to make your family feel that they have not lost connection with you. Also, show interest in the topic they are talking about during the visit or the phone call. Making the person feel that they matter would greatly help them erode being left behind.
If you or a loved one struggle to make regular phone calls, try registering for free companion phone call services such as the “friendly calls program”. Volunteers in the program would provide supportive listening and social engagement, and help clients relieve anxiety, despair, and loneliness through phone calls.
1. Encourage social interaction
Don’t let your family deal with emotions on their own, especially when you and other family members are not around. Encourage your loved ones to make friends with their neighbours and the people they may have daily interactions with. Convince them to participate in group outings and actively engage in community events.
According to a study published by the National Institute on Aging, having an active social life improves one’s physical, mental, and emotional health, which is especially crucial for the elderly who suffer from loneliness and depression.
2. Make transportation easier
Many seniors don’t drive, so making transportation accessible is crucial. Choosing a long-term care home with adequate public transit nearby would encourage seniors to join the crowd and explore more outdoor activities. See our post on “How to Choose a Long-Term Care Home” for more details.
You can ask someone to share a ride with your loved one, but it is better to do it yourself. Offering your loved ones a chance to ride with you and assisting them in learning to use public transit will help them maintain a healthy sense of independence.
3. Notify friends and caregivers
If your family seems reluctant to make social connections actively, it is your job to contact the people who are frequently around them to pay more attention. Some seniors are afraid to step out of their comfort zone. To better assist, getting other people involved in their lives would reduce the sense of isolation. Ask the caregivers to chat with your loved one when they are doing housework, or call your friends to offer assistance with cleaning or cooking, so that they have more chances to “break the ice” and let the warmth in.
4. Get a therapy pet (if possible)
If your loved one lives alone at home, try adopting a pet and make it a good companion for your family. These fuzzy little things do have some therapeutic effects: studies show that pets can reduce seniors’ anxiety and blood pressure and encourage positive social behaviours (ontariospca.com). Moreover, taking care of a pet would make the senior feel rewarded and fulfilled.
If your loved one is living in a long-term care home, be clear on the policies of bringing a pet with the residents. For the homes that do not allow their residents to have pets, you can have your friends get their pets for a visit.
If you are the one who’s experiencing senior isolation, you can:
5. Get involved in the community
Staying active in the community gives individuals a sense of purpose. Many seniors benefit from active involvement with their community and meeting new people. If you live in a retirement community, you will find tons of socializing opportunities! For example, you can volunteer to help with gift wrapping during holiday seasons or perform in a local cultural festival. It’s a great way to get engaged and give yourself a sense of purpose. If you live at home, take advantage of joining a local senior center or any community of interest in the local area. Spending time with others can help fight feelings of isolation and depression to a great extent.
6. Be more physically active
If you can, get in more physical activity. Moving your body can assist to release endorphins, or “happy chemicals,” which can help to reduce stress and make you feel “refreshed.” When you’re alone, you may find it difficult to maintain the habit, so it’s time to join an exercise group!
Taking part in a group exercise class will make your workout more enjoyable and push you to keep going, in addition to lessening your isolation and stress. Exercises can also aid in the prevention of memory loss and cognitive deterioration. There is no need for heavy activities such as playing basketball or swimming. Light exercise like walking or even simple gardening may also make a great difference!
7. Explore interests
Hobbies are great for fighting against loneliness and keeping our minds active. “A watched pot never boils.” Rekindling your old interests or discovering new ones will make you feel the time passes faster than spending your day staring at a clock. Also, picking up a hobby can assist you in meeting new people. Try joining a club, a class, or a group and share common interests with others. You will even discover more hobbies thanks to the other club members. It’s also a fantastic method to keep your mind stimulated.
If you don’t know what hobby should you engage in, here are a few ideas to inspire you to start:
Tell your stories and share your memories with your families and friends. There are plenty of benefits to storytelling. Don’t believe us? Check out our blog on “The Power of Telling Senior Stories” for details on that. You can also keep a gratitude journal daily, which will help increase your happiness, promote better sleep, and make you focus on the bright side of life.
Fishing is a calm and fascinating pastime that can keep you entertained for hours on end. It is much more than just staring at the water and waiting for fish to come. To catch some types of fish, you’ll need special tools. It sometimes even requires you to learn specific fishing techniques to catch a fish, which is challenging and filled with fun.
Healing and inspiring – this is the power of the arts. Painting gives you a chance to express yourself and discover the beauty of the things around you. It helps you to release your emotions and bolster memories. Furthermore, it requires hand-eye coordination, which will help to improve your mobility.
Birdwatching isn’t just looking at a bird. Birds are beautiful creatures that connect you to nature. The art of birdwatching requires a keen eye and sufficient patience and knowledge. If you’re new to it, look for a bird reference guide to see which birds visit your region at certain times of the year. You can train your ear to recognize different bird calls and environmental noises. This is also a fun task.
Candle-making can promote dexterity in hands and fingers and boost your self-esteem by giving you a sense of pride and fulfillment. The aroma of essential oils will calm and relax you, especially when manufacturing scented candles. Candles can also be given as gifts during the holidays or sold to supplement one’s income.
Dining with others
Stop taking your plate to your room and eating alone. Having meals with others will create bonds, and that’s why we always choose a restaurant as a dating spot. A shared dining table will provide you with chances for conversation and storytelling and allow you to eat more if you are experiencing a loss of appetite. Dining is a significant part of social interaction. In many senior centres, country clubs, health clubs, and long-term care home communities. It is recognized as one of the most important elements.
Senior isolation is both a standard and dangerous situation that seniors face when living alone. It can be attributed to many external or internal reasons, and the harmful impact would profoundly affect the senior’s family. There are a variety of approaches to overcoming loneliness. Whether it’s about assisting others in overcoming loneliness or assisting yourself in dealing with your situation, staying active in social communities and developing interests is always the key.