The first section of this article isn’t the lightest of subjects, but we encourage you to persevere. There are some important facts to know about social isolation and loneliness but then we will get into the good stuff. Tips and strategies to overcome this very significant health issue.
Intuitively we all know that social isolation is not healthy for us, if often leads to feelings of loneliness which isn’t a positive state of being. Older adults can be at a particularly high risk of both; retirement can result in an intimidatingly large amount of free time and a sudden decrease in social outlets. The Covid pandemic and travel restrictions further magnify the situation.
Interestingly these two states don’t always occur together. It is important to understand that being alone is a physical separation from others whereas being lonely is a subjective feeling of distress. A person can be alone but not lonely, and conversely, a person can be lonely even when they are with other people. However, aloneness can often lead to loneliness and there are some serious health risks that can result.
Research tells us that the psychological state of loneliness triggers biological processes that contribute to poor health. There is a link between loneliness and depression, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, cognitive decline and weakened immune system response. So clearly, for the sake of our health, we want to find ways to limit social isolation and loneliness.
There are several common age-related conditions that can lead to social isolation. It is important to understand these ‘triggers’ so that we can actively combat them. Causes of social isolation may include poor physical health particularly limited mobility, poor mental health and major life events like the loss of a friend or partner. In addition, challenges such as a lack of transportation, untreated hearing loss and memory loss can further contribute to social isolation.
Here are some tips and strategies of combatting both social isolation and loneliness:
- Address physical problems that limit your ability to get around or participate
- Access therapy for rehabilitation or treatment
- Treat hearing loss with hearing aids
- Join a fitness class, a group or meet up with a few friends
- Golfing, walking and cycling are all good for maintaining physical distance
- Find meaningful activities and purpose
- Mentor a young adult in your industry or profession
- Create and deliver an educational presentation from your travels or experiences (retirement residences are always looking for engagement opportunities for their residents)
- Volunteer your skills and your time.
- Do you have a hobby such as knitting, sewing, baking, wood working, electronics or gardening? Find a group or individual who could benefit from your skills.
- Do you like to drive? Consider delivering meals or helping people get to appointments.
- Do you like to talk on the phone? Sign up to call people who are isolated for a check-in chat or reach out to friends and family that are out of town.
- Enroll in an online class that has an interactive participation component
- Find a part time job. Working has many social benefits and research shows it reduces cognitive decline.
- Foster your relationships with family. Building a bond with grandchildren will last a lifetime.
- Join a seniors centre or special interest club. These groups are being creative about connecting with their membership during Covid. Let your passions and interests lead the way.
- Be open to invitations and new experiences that are offered to you.
- Take advantage of offers for a carpool or transportation support or access driving services.
- Try a new hobby that is unfamiliar to you.
- Embrace technology and learn how to Skype, video conference or Facetime.
Of special note, when a person has dementia it is particularly important that their socialization is not discounted. Since dementia can make it more difficult for people to maintain relationships, they often feel disconnected. Don’t avoid them for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. It is important to include individuals with cognitive issues in conversation and life events. They may not recall names or fully follow the conversation, but they will recall the feeling of being included and this is powerful.
If you are caring for someone with dementia encourage structured activities where friends and family can focus on a task rather than conversation. For example, bowling or art. Schedule the same activity into a regular routine, so the person becomes more comfortable and engaged because they know what to expect.
Caregivers are at high risk for loneliness. Even though they may spend a lot of time with their loved one they can often be very lonely for social connectivity with others. They may feel like no one understands what they are going through. We encourage caregivers to spend time with other family and friends, join a support group and take time to do activities that make them happy.
An easy first step for everyone is to simply go outside for some fresh air and exercise. Just being out in public around other people increases our sense of well being. And don’t hesitate to reach out for professional support.
Please feel free to reach out to us at Proactive Seniors if you have any questions or are in need of support. You can check our website out at www.proactiveseniors.ca. Or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Kathy Mendham, Owner and Advisor at Proactive Seniors