By Lynn Paxson, Owner, Oasis Senior Advisors Delaware, and Lisa Maguire
Even before COVID, loneliness among seniors was a serious issue. Individuals who feel lonely frequently experience health-related concerns, and loneliness is a major risk factor in the development of depression, particularly in seniors.
A 2015 study from Brigham Young University evaluated the connection between social isolation and mortality rates. The study found that both actual and perceived social isolation are associated with early mortality, and living alone increased the likelihood of mortality by 32%. While this on its own may not indicate that the single senior in your life should no longer live by themselves, it is cause for closer examination of their living situation and mental well-being.
The same study showed that higher relationship quality results in improved levels of oxytocin, (the “love hormone”), reduced blood pressure, stress, and anxiety, and lower risk of stroke or coronary artery disease. With this in mind, one of the greatest risk factors to continually assess for your loved one is how strong their social connections are with family and friends.
What most seniors really want are the good ol’ days. They want to move like they used to, be needed the way they used to, and do the things they used to be capable of doing. Since that isn’t possible, you may begin noticing small changes. Withdrawal from their usual routine or activities can be a huge indicator of loneliness, and this may be particularly hard to identify given our current circumstances.
In your calls and visits, make sure you’re asking about how they’re sleeping and eating and how well they’re remaining connected. You want to make sure you’re not their only social interaction, and while you may feel the phone works both ways, an individual who is impacted by feelings of isolation may not have the energy or feel worthy enough of others’ time to reach out.
When inquiring, be careful not to sound accusatory or overly concerned, as it may cause them to become defensive or provide a logical explanation in order to prevent you from delving deeper. You may want to pay special attention if your loved one has recently had a major life change, such as the passing of a spouse, sibling, or close friend, or even a different type of loss, such as a friend moving far away. Extra attention is also warranted if there are recent increases in mobility issues or if a friend begins expressing signs of loneliness, as we tend to pick up on our friends’ loneliness, almost like it’s contagious.
If any of these items are raising red flags, you may be wondering what to do about it. Right now, there’s a lot of concern about safe things to do, especially headed into the cooler weather. Many senior centers and fitness centers are operating with precautions in mind, and several seniors are safely attending socially-distanced classes, particularly water-aerobics. There are also learning opportunities at OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute – they’ve got a vast catalogue of activities and studies. You can also hire a companion if your loved one lives far away, or consider a senior living facility that offers a strong social connectedness program. Finally, while our current situation has presented its challenges, there is a silver lining: numerous online activities have arisen as a result! You could have your loved one try a zoom painting class, or virtual book club. Perhaps even virtual fitness class or virtual family game night.
If you are considering options on whether or not it’s time to move out of the home, it’s a big decision, and there’s no right answer when it comes to timing – only on what’s best for your individual needs and situation. Given the added fear surrounding the current situation and the tragedies in the beginning of the pandemic with specific regard to seniors being so susceptible, as you begin your research, you may find it most suitable to engage a service to help you identify what’s best for you and your loved ones.