Our most valuable resources are often people. The community and family can offer companionship, support, laughter and connection which is key. Regardless of whether we are introverted or extroverted individuals, it has been proven that socialization is important for our well-being.
As we age, natural or critical life circumstances can begin to alter a person’s connection and level of socialization.Our seniors often feel isolated as a result of being widowed, estranged from family or mental illness. Loneliness in the elderly has become a national epidemic and is a top factor linking to both the cause and effect of mental illnesses and other issues in a senior’s life.
LONELINESS – A CYCLE
Well-being and loneliness in our lives are not only linked but are often cyclical. The cause and effects of loneliness in the lives of our elderly can be compared to the age-old chicken or the egg dilemma. A decline in well-being affecting isolation could also be the cause of why an elderly individual is experiencing isolation in the first place. Everyone’s situation is unique, but from a global perspective, very common within certain demographics.
In many cases, a wide variety of issues tend to surface when a senior is dealing with the loss of their faculties. As chronic illnesses set in, this often can intensify isolation and a reliable support system for those not being looked after.
LONELINESS & MENTAL HEALTH
Mental health issues are now more than ever being studied and taught to our communities. A large group affected by various mental health conditions are unfortunately our seniors.
According to research, 1 in 4 seniors lives with a mental health problem (e.g. depression, anxiety or dementia) or illness, and 10 to 15% of adults 65 years or older and living in the community suffer from depression. The percentage of seniors in residential care who have been diagnosed with depression or showed symptoms of depression without diagnosis is higher at 44%. Approximately 50% of people over the age of 80 reports feeling lonely; men over the age of 80 have the highest suicide rate of all age groups. Respondents to the online consultation noted that mental health contributes to social isolation and has an impact on the individual’s quality of life. (Government of Canada, 2014)
Further to these concerning statistics of the elderly in Canada, another study discusses that loneliness is linked to stress response and inflammation, which is deeply linked with depression. Loneliness affects cognition and even dementia risk. “…followed over 12,000 participants for 10 years, and found a significant link between loneliness and dementia risk—those who reported being loneliest had a 40% greater risk for dementia.” (Walton, 2018)
There are common theories amongst researchers that believe loneliness can trigger mental health, rather than it being mental health causing loneliness. This brings us back to the cause and effect cycle. It is especially impactful and thought provoking that there are also a percentage of people who have carried life-long psychiatric conditions with them into their senior years, where isolation may now intensify their effects.
AIDING LONELINESS IN OUR SENIOR COMMUNITY
Something to note is that social isolation and loneliness can run independently and are subjective based on each person’s ideas of quality social interaction. One person may love to conversate and laugh often, others might prefer their privacy but appreciate and require quiet company and physical support. In another observation, an individual may have frequent visits and experience loneliness, while another who is more alone in the physical sense, might feel more connected. Personality, preferences, conditions, circumstances and many other factors play into what a senior might need to be stimulated and receive the level of socialization that brings satisfaction and better health to them.
A good step we can take as a family or community member is to truly evaluate what could make your aged loved one’s life easier and healthier. Sometimes a one-on-one approach gives us the clearest solution. Conversations and observations can lead to the following questions: What can they truly use help with? They will likely not ask you. Do they need company or care visits? Are they safe on their own? Are there signs of declining health or mental well-being?
Firstly, cover their immediate health and safety needs. In addition, consider the fact that the elderly often need someone in their corner to keep an eye out for misconduct. There are unfortunate situations where physical, mental and financial abuse may take place when no one is paying attention.
Secondly, think of what makes your loved one happy? What is their love language? Are there activities, games, movies, music, or certain visitors that bring a smile to their face? What will increase their quality of social interaction? These considerations put into practice are more life-changing than we expect. The connection is key.
NOTE: With Covid 19 being an exceptional concern for our elderly community, please keep in mind what your regional restrictions are when planning for interactions with your ageing loved ones. The pandemic doesn’t need to restrict our creativity and concern for isolation within our senior community. However, we should look at alternative methods of communication and limited interactions until required. See our Virtual Activities blog for more ideas on how to keep seniors connected.