December 2018 Special Feature

14 Ways to Help Seniors Avoid Isolation

Isolation among seniors is alarmingly common and will, unfortunately, continue to increase in prevalence as the senior population grows.

Learn more about how to keep your parents and senior loved ones healthy by reading our tips on the top ways to help seniors avoid isolation.

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How to Help Seniors Avoid Isolation

Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to poor health outcomes in seniors, according to a study by researcher Nicholas R. Nicholson in "A Review of Social Isolation,” published in The Journal of Primary Prevention.

The study notes how “social isolation has been demonstrated to lead to numerous detrimental health effects in older adults,” including:

  • An increased number of falls
  • An increased risk for all-cause mortality
  • An increased risk for dementia
  • An increased risk for rehospitalization

The study also states that the prevalence of isolation among seniors who live at home may be as high as 43%.

“With a prevalence of over 40% and the sheer number of older persons projected to increase exponentially… social isolation will likely impact the health, well-being and quality of life of numerous older person now and in the foreseeable future.”

Considering the demonstrated risks and the increasing prevalence of this issue, it’s certainly worth addressing how we can promote social integration among our older loved ones, and even ourselves — it has also been shown that family caregivers are at a high risk of social isolation themselves.

Here are the top ways to promote connectedness and social health:

1. Address incontinence issues.

For obvious reasons, a senior who experiences incontinence may be hesitant to leave their home and could become isolated. When family caregivers and health professionals make sure that incontinence issues are appropriately addressed, for example through medications and supplies, seniors can have a better opportunity to recognize their social potentials and live life without embarrassment and fear.

2. Encourage a positive body image.

Compliments and positive comments can go a long way to boosting the self-esteem of seniors. Similarly, discouraging seniors from fretting over their appearance or effects of aging may help them avoid becoming self-conscious to the point that they avoid social interactions. Remember to always be positive and sensitive in efforts to encourage older loved ones.

3. Encourage dining with others.

Eating with others is inherently social. Encourage seniors to share a meal with others whenever possible, whether it’s with a church group or a friendly cafe or diner. Dining with others is also likely to help promote better nutrition, which is crucial for the elderly.

4. Encourage hearing and vision tests.

Seniors with undiagnosed or untreated hearing problems may avoid social situations because of difficulty communicating or embarrassment. Encourage seniors to have their hearing checked and hearing problems treated. A hearing aid may be the only barrier between a senior and better social health. Vision tests are important too, as sight problems “limit opportunities for social interactions with others” according to the social isolation study.

5. Encourage religious seniors to maintain attendance at their places of worship.

For seniors who have been regular churchgoers, this weekly social connection has been shown to be quite beneficial. “Those frequently attending religious services have been found to have lower mortality rates than those with infrequent attendance,” the study reports. Older churchgoers not only benefit from the social interaction and sense of purpose that weekly worship provides, but they also benefit from the watchful eye of other churchgoers, who are likely to recognize a decline in an isolated senior that may have gone unnoticed otherwise.

6. Give a senior something to take care of.

Many experts note that the act of nurturing can relieve feelings of social isolation. In the peer-reviewed paper, “Emotional Benefits of Dog Ownership,” researcher Eve Beals succinctly outlines the benefits of nurturing a pet: “Pet owners remain engaged socially, have less depression, suffer less loneliness, feel more secure, have more motivation for the constructive use of time and require less medication than non-pet owners. Animal companionship facilitates establishing friends, is a social lubricant, gives a reason to get up in the morning and is an icebreaker.” You would need to make certain that the senior is capable and willing to properly care for the pet before giving a pet as a gift, but assuming the senior is capable of caring for a pet, nurturing for an animal companion can be quite beneficial. Even tending a garden can satisfy our nurturing drive, so giving seniors gardening supplies as a gift can be beneficial too.

7. Give affection.

There’s nothing like a hug. Research has shown that friendly platonic touching from family, like hand-holding or hugging, can lower stress and promote feelings of well-being. On the other hand, people deprived of touch can experience decreased well-being. So even if you or your older relatives are not the touchy-feely types, at the very least, weave a friendly hug into your greetings and farewells.

8. Give extra support to seniors who have lost a family member, friend or spouse.

Older adults may be at highest risk for becoming socially isolated during the period after a family member, friend or spouse has passed away. For this reason, it’s important to provide extra emotional and social support to recent mourners, widows and widowers while they are grieving. Do more than bring flowers; go the extra mile and spend more time with the senior in the days and weeks following his or her loss. This can make all the difference for the bereaved senior’s well-being and it helps to encourage a healthy grieving process rather than a spiral into prolonged depression and isolation.

9. Help out a caregiver.

Family caregivers who are helping to care for an elderly loved one are probably more concerned about the social well-being of the person they are caring for than their own social well-being. But caregiving itself can actually trigger social isolation. In Squires’ AARP article, she summarizes the health risks of caregiving: “Caregivers often work by themselves, and more than half (53%) say they have less time for friends and family. All too often, they don’t call doctors when they are sick and they have little or no time to exercise or eat well. Studies show that up to 70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression.” If you are a caregiver, remember to take care of yourself. It’s not just the person you are caring for who’s at risk of social isolation, it is you. If you know a caregiver, or a loved one in your family shoulders the burden of caregiving, take whatever steps you can to make that person’s life easier and to allow them to have a social life of their own.

10. Identify isolated seniors.

Often family members will be the first to notice when social isolation is affecting a senior’s well-being, but not all seniors have the benefit of loved ones who live nearby and can check on their well-being. For this reason, public health professionals should be on the lookout for signs of social isolation problems in their clients and patients so that appropriate interventions can be arranged. After all, nothing can be done to help socially isolated seniors if no one recognizes that they are socially isolated. AARP notes that health professionals should be especially aware of social isolation.

11. Make adaptive technologies available.

Adaptive technologies help seniors to compensate for age-related deficits and deficiencies that can impede social interaction. Many seniors do not take full advantage of these devices. Sometimes they may be embarrassed because they don’t want to appear or feel old. In other cases, the device may be overly expensive and not covered by insurance. We can encourage and facilitate the use of adaptive aids that make it possible for seniors to have active and involved social lives.

12. Make transportation more readily available.

Lack of adequate transportation is a primary cause of a social isolation. Because many seniors do not drive, anything that helps seniors get around and make independent choices about travel promotes their social health. Creating a solid public transportation infrastructure and providing special transportation options to seniors and disabled people will help promote their social integration. Family offering rides to older loved ones and helping them to learn to use public transportation will also help them maintain social connections and a healthy sense of independence.

13. Notify neighbors.

Because socially isolated seniors may be vulnerable to a variety of unexpected problems and may have underlying issues such as dementia, their loved ones should consider informing members of the community that there is a vulnerable adult in the neighborhood. Trusted neighbors within a block radius or so should be introduced to the senior if feasible, informed about any particular issues the senior may have and asked to keep a friendly eye out in case anything seems amiss.

14. Promote a sense of purpose.

Seniors with a sense of purpose are less likely to succumb to the negative effects of social isolation. Besides providing a sense of purpose, many hobbies and interests are inherently social in nature. Anything that involves a group, for example, playing bridge, could be said to be socially healthy. If a senior is bereft of ideas for what to do, there are always planned events at the local senior center. Volunteering is also a great way of maintaining and expressing a sense of purpose. Encouraging seniors to remain active in their hobbies and interests, and providing them opportunities to volunteer can help them maintain their sense of purpose and keep them from becoming isolated and lonely.

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