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Social isolation and aging

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By John D. Miller

Imagine what your life would be like if you rarely, if ever, stepped out of your home.  You might move from room to room, but your gaze never leaves those four walls, and/or your television.  Wouldn’t you get a little “stir-crazy?”  I know I would.

Being stuck inside can be a particular problem for seniors who live alone. Certainly, there is comfort in a home providing safety, warmth, and familiar surroundings.  But, socially and emotionally, the walls around you don’t let anyone in.  There may not be any friends or neighbors willing or able to visit.  Isolation can have a negative effect mentally, emotionally, and even physically.   Aging and isolation is a health risk.

Isolation in the elderly can lead to some distressing health outcomes, and even increase the risk of death.  A recent publication stated, “social isolation has been demonstrated to lead to numerous detrimental health effects in older adults, including increased risk for mortality, dementia, increased risk for re-hospitalization, and an increased number of falls.”

For an aging widow (male or female), loneliness and social isolation may be their biggest daily problem.  No one to talk to.  Decisions about meals and nutrition can be easily compromised.  When to sleep?  Have I taken my medicine?  Why should I get dressed?

Here are some discussion points for families, seniors, and elderly parents:

  1. Be proactive. Examine, discuss, and create a plan to address health and aging issues. Whether it’s arranging for the delivery of incontinence supplies, pharmacy prescriptions, or making sure your loved one has regular hearing or vision tests. Being proactive with some advance planning regarding a senior’s health can help them feel better on a day-to-day basis. Creating a plan can relieve needless worry.What’s more, it can diminish the social anxiety related to hearing, vision, or continence concerns.
  2. Communicate with family, friends and neighbors. If distance or inclement weather makes it impossible for you to check on your senior loved one as much as you’d like, enlist the help of others who may be nearby and more easily able to visit. Can a neighbor knock on the door and check in? Don’t forget to call or email your loved one often to keep those connections strong even when you can’t visit in person.
  3. Utilize senior-friendly services. Can food be delivered? Seniors living alone may be at greater risk of poor eating habits and inadequate nutrition.Consider an online grocery service for food deliveries or an organization such as Meals on Wheels, which can provide not just nutritious food but some personalized social contact.

Obviously, chilly and inclement weather is reason enough to stay indoors for all of us.  It is very difficult for the elderly to leave the house while risking dangers like the cold, dangerous driving conditions, ice and frost.  Conversely, it is also harder for visitors to reach them.

Even more distressing is the fact that social isolation can lead to loneliness, unhappiness, and undue health risks for our aging population.

Fact.The probability of living alone increases as you age.  Have you ever thought about your future this way?
Many seniors get creative with housing, and share living arrangements with family. Others choose to buy in to a senior living community (perhaps assisted living).

For women, the likelihood of living alone is 32% for 65-74 year-olds, but this increases to 57% for those aged 85 years or more.  For men, the corresponding proportions are 13% and 29% .

How does this effect our elderly parents? Recent research has shown that feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person’s chances of an early death by 14%. Isolation and loneliness has a tangible effect on adult aging and health. Sleep can be disrupted. Blood pressure may elevate. Overall well-being may decline.
Some seniors enjoy and value quiet and solitude, but that is not the issue — it is the social component of human interaction, and engagement, that matters.

Age-related health issues like hearing loss, incontinence, or vision loss, can increase this sense of senior isolation.
Elderly, caregivers, and families can play a big part in minimizing this isolation. Think about encouraging your elderly parents to use easily-accessible resources such as hearing aids and walkers. These aids will help keep them more active and socially engaged.

Always a huge issue — explore transportation options for seniors. Driving skills and weather conditions (visibility; sun glare; road conditions, etc.) may be a bad combination. Try to arrange safe transportation for older adults. Look into locally accessible and senior-friendly public transit, or taxi services. Most community Senior Centers provide transportation services for in-town or out-of-town travel. Also, some volunteer groups may offer ride sharing services.

Some community organizations provide volunteers who call and check in on home-bound seniors living alone. This social connection and human interaction can provide tremendous elder benefits.

About the Author
John D. Miller is the founder/owner of Home Care Partners, LLC,  providing private duty, personalized in-home assistance and non-medical care services to those needing help in daily activities and household functions.   He can be reached at 781 378 2164; email: jdmiller@homecarepartners.biz , or online at:  www.homecarepartnersma.com

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