Senior Loneliness: Can You Really Make a Difference?
October 9, 2012
We’re pleased to have Joe Thoron, owner of Aging Parent Rescue, here with us today. Joe is an expert in senior care and independent living and has recommended the Bay Alarm Medical Medical Alert System to many of his customers.
In this article, Joe talks about Senior Loneliness and how you can help.
Remember how tough grade school was some days? You got teased because your shirt was on inside out or your name rhymed with “hairy.” Some jerk stuck his foot out and tripped you. The teacher called on you but you were busy making up a new Scooby Doo adventure and didn’t know what she asked.
Tough days. And your parents, when they heard about it, really wanted to help you out. They wanted to go beat up that bully, convince the teacher you were brilliant, or even change the family name.
But they didn’t. Because they realized their limits.
Now you’re in a similar situation as you watch your parents or elderly relatives get older and start struggling with more and more problems in their daily lives.
You want to help, but there’s only so much you can do. Really, there’s only so much you should do, especially when it comes to certain areas of life.
Is loneliness one of those?
It’s a tough call. You see, loneliness is an important problem for seniors. It’s actually a major health risk. Study after study has shown that seniors who are lonely and isolated have more health problems than ones who have a strong social network. Cancer, heart-disease, etc. They all get worse. (Statistically speaking across the study populations. It doesn’t necessarily mean that one individual lonely person will suddenly get cancer.)
It’s tempting, as the adult child watching your parent’s social network fade away, to want to step in to make it all better.
But is that the right thing to do?
For the sake of argument, here are three tips to help you help them, without making the situation worse. You tell me whether I’ve convinced you…
1. Acknowledge that you can’t solve the whole problem
You’ll drive both yourself and the person you care about crazy if you try to be everything for them. They’ve spent their lifetime being in charge of their own life and their own relationships. They drew sustenance from all kinds of friendships and connections: close friends, workmates, even the casual social interactions from going to the grocery store or the bakery. You can’t replace all that. But you can, of course, work to strengthen your relationship and be a trusted and steady source of connection.
2. Remember that people like to feel valued
As humans we get a lot of satisfaction from making things happen and helping other people. Maybe you’ve noticed that you get to know your neighbors better at a community work party than you do at a neighborhood potluck? As we get older we don’t have as many opportunities to work together with people on meaningful tasks. The younger generations forget that seniors want to use their skills and abilities, not just sit around watching TV.
Look for whatever factors are keeping your senior from getting involved in meaningful activities. Maybe it’s as simple as transportation. Help solve that problem and then get out of the way.
A great example of this kind of program is the LinkAges program run by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. It matches elderly people with other community members to share skills and trade time. See more at http://innovation.pamf.org/linkages_launch_recap_video/
3. Facilitate connection with family and friends
Instead of taking on the whole job of keeping a senior engaged, you can start the ball rolling by helping family members start a regular habit of communication with their relatives. At the same time, you can help your parent get more comfortable with today’s technology. This will open up many doors for better shared experiences with loved ones.
For example, there are simple apps now for families to share photos together, or for grandparents and grandchildren to do real-time collaborative “finger-painting” or play games together online.
Isolation in seniors can have a negative impact on their health. If you care about a senior who is isolated, don’t try to take on the whole job of keeping them socially engaged. Help them connect to activities they find rewarding, and help other members of the family stay in touch.