A hidden killer of elderly people: loneliness
Loneliness has an emotional impact on everyone, particularly the elderly. It is a recognised fact that many of our elderly live on their own or spend a considerable amount of time in solitude.
Social isolation due to loss of family and friends will have a negative impact on a person’s state of mind and well-being, resulting in feelings of emptiness.
There is a direct link between solitude, lack of social interaction and depression. Most often, the cause of reduced social activity is related to the loss of independence through illness or disability, such as lack of mobility, which then leads to the elderly staying indoors for a very long time.
This subject is not talked about often enough, and many elderly people do not express these feelings to their relatives or general physician, making it more difficult to recognise loneliness and its negative effects.
Researchers suggest that social isolation and exclusion pose a health risk comparable to lifelong smoking and obesity, causing damage to the immune and cardiovascular system, therefore increasing the risk of heart disease. Apart from these serious health risks, social isolation may also increase the likelihood of an unhealthy lifestyle and can increase the risk for degenerative illnesses such as dementia.
So how can we help the elderly combat loneliness? The initial process should be simply to take the time and listen to our elderly loved ones’ interests. Many times we are so busy with our self-thoughts and thinking of what we should say next, that we forget how to just pause and listen.
By digging deep and understanding our loved ones’ personal interests, we might discover many things that could bring enthusiasm back into their life.
The following steps should be considered to help develop a strategy where we can introduce activities to an elderly person’s life gradually. If, for example, your elderly relative loves gardening, bring over a few plants inside their home so as to help them rediscover the passion that was once present.
Also, try suggesting how your elderly loved one can nurture their existing relationships as well as build new ones; stimulate the elderly person’s curiosity by picking up a newspaper, looking for social events and gatherings they could attend. It might be difficult to find the perfect activity, but by joining in as a curious spectator yourself, you will encourage your elderly loved one to meet new people and ultimately help them make new friends and connections.
Discourage too much sleep or spending a considerable time in front of the TV. Although many consider the telly as a good pastime, there is limited social interaction in watching the same programmes and zapping from one channel to another.
Instead, encourage an activity with other people of the same age and interests. Invite other elderly peers over for tea, suggest that your loved one join a social group in their community, or start a collection of some value which can be shared with others.
To keep loneliness at bay, it is crucial to keep the elderly person busy, even with simple household tasks, such as cooking; the busiest person and the happiest person are one and the same.
Caring for a pet may also help alleviate loneliness, as this in fact has a therapeutic value through its calming effect. It has been shown to decrease blood pressure levels and also adds the benefit of having the elderly person be responsible for the needs of that particular animal, resulting in an added sense of value.
Finding time to spend with our elderly loved ones is the key to break the barriers of loneliness. Even through small acts of kindness we can help reduce isolation. We should visit and call our elderly parents or grandparents at least twice a week and talk to our elderly neighbours more often.
Another important tool is technology. Information technology is not only for the young but also for the ageing population. Many elderly people are getting more accustomed to social media and online video chat with family and friends who live abroad and this should be encouraged. Even local care companies are using technology to overcome loneliness by introducing remote care monitoring.
Loneliness is difficult to handle on your own; therefore one must also consider the help of a professional. Group therapies and counselling therapy can help the elderly person find the right coping strategies, making it easier for them to deal with their emotions.
As children, grandchildren, neighbours and a community as a whole, we need to be more aware of the solitude our elderly loved ones may experience, and the serious impact it can have on their lives. We should take the necessary steps to help them out, so that no elderly person has to experience loneliness again.
Mr Zammit is a care manager.