5 Ways to Help Seniors Battle Loneliness
During the busy seasons of life – like holding down a job while parenting young children – the thought of time alone with nothing to do sounds like bliss.
But you can have too much of a good thing. As you get older and your responsibilities decrease, your sense of connection can decrease too. You may interact with fewer people each day and feel less needed than you used to.
Many seniors face periods of loneliness during their retirement. And many overcome it by being active in their community – running charities, volunteering at the local school or hospital, helping with the grandkids or joining in church-based activities.
But now, there’s COVID-19. How do you prevent loneliness during a global pandemic where our best weapon is physical distancing?
Social Isolation and Loneliness
You’ll often hear the terms ‘social isolation’ and ‘loneliness’ used interchangeably. They’re not actually the same thing though.
Social isolation refers to having few social relationships and infrequent contact with others. Loneliness is more about the feeling of being isolated.
It’s possible to have a busy social life and still feel lonely. And some people say they feel content, even though they are socially isolated.
Even before COVID-19, our society was experiencing a loneliness epidemic, with 1 in 4 people saying they currently felt lonely, according to a 2018 report by the Australian Psychological Society.
There’s a higher prevalence of loneliness among older people. A 2019 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that older people were no more likely than any other age group to be socially isolated. But they did report a higher rate of loneliness than their younger peers.
Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness
Whatever you call it, social isolation and loneliness can have a big effect on health and wellbeing.
In fact, it’s a major risk factor for a host of conditions including heart disease, obesity, depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. It significantly increases the risk of dementia, heart attack and stroke.
Whatever your age or living situation, you need to feel connected to other people. It matters.
Preventing Loneliness Among Seniors During COVID-19
Older people are in a very difficult position when it comes to COVID-19 since they are:
- Much more likely to be living alone than any other age group (24% of 70-79 year olds live alone, rising to 34% of over-80s). That means there’s no company within their own household.
- At much higher risk of a bad outcome if they catch COVID-19, meaning they’re advised to limit their contact with people outside their own household.
- Not digital natives. They grew up in an era that relied on face-to-face contact for most relationships with letters (and later phone calls) to stay in touch across the miles.
The steps that protect older people from COVID-19 simultaneously increase their sense of isolation, which may lead to a range of other physical and mental health consequences.
Older people are caught between a rock and a hard place here. So, how can you help yourself? Or how can you help a lonely parent? Here are a few ideas to decrease loneliness in older adults.
1. Acknowledge your loneliness
Recognise that you’re lonely. It’s tempting to suppress the feeling or dismiss it as ‘being silly’ but it’s better to acknowledge what you’re feeling, even if it’s uncomfortable.
After all, if you don’t acknowledge the problem, you’ll struggle to find a solution to it.
2. Let your loneliness spur you into action
Once, you’ve recognized that you’re lonely, you can work out how to deal with it.
It’s very likely that many of your old friends are feeling the same way. So, call them or write to them.
Who doesn’t love hearing from an old friend? Once you’ve dialled their number, you’re more likely to have a delightful time reconnecting with people. So, take the first step and get back in touch. There’s lots to share.
3. Engage – but do it sensibly
You need to balance the risks of COVID-19 exposure and loneliness. Both pose risks to your health and wellbeing.
One option is to minimise your exposure to others in the humdrum parts of life so that you feel more comfortable seeing people for pleasure.
So, get your shopping delivered to avoid crowds at the supermarket. Get someone to collect your prescriptions to avoid getting more than you bargained for at the pharmacy.
Then go to your tai-chi class in the park and enjoy the benefits of fresh air, sunshine, company and exercise. Stay at least 1.5m from everyone though.
Chat with your neighbour over the fence, say hello to the postie, greet people on your daily walk (it’s good to get out of the house).
You’ve reduced your exposure to other people considerably by doing your errands differently. But you’ve maintained social connection in a COVID-safe way.
4. Adapt to new technology
If you’re not used to using digital technology, then have confidence in your ability to learn.
You belong to one of the most adaptable generations in history. Think of all the changes you’ve witnessed in your lifetime, all the appliances and gadgets you’ve learnt to use, the changing cars you’ve driven. You can handle an iPad.
Adapting to new technology helps you connect with your kids and grandkids even if you can’t see them as much as you’d like. You could video call them using Facetime, WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. It’s nice to see their faces.
5. Join online communities
Adapting to new technology also helps you find belonging and enjoyment through online communities.
Whatever you enjoy doing, there’s bound to be an online group for it – cooking, gardening, Scrabble, you name it.
Social media (such as Facebook or Instagram) gives you an easy way to connect with old friends around the world and join communities of like-minded people.