Tips for Seniors and Their Caregivers
Five Tips to Avoid Social Isolation
By Rachel Seligman, Revolution Health Group
It’s a fact of life: As parents and older relatives hit their golden years, their social networks shrink—friends slow down, move to areas more conducive to retirement or pass away. But while a slower social life may be inevitable, a life that is completely isolated doesn't have to be—and can damage your loved one–s health.
Those who are socially isolated are likely at greater risk for heart disease and other ailments, according to research. In one study done at the University of California, Irvine, in 2002, Ph.D. candidate Dara Sorkin surveyed 180 elderly men and women and found that those who were lonelier had a higher risk of heart disease. The researchers asked questions to ascertain loneliness and support systems, and conducted medical tests to find participants' disease risk. Just a small increase in perceived emotional support resulted in a large reduction of disease risk, according to the study.
The good news is that the opposite is also true—those who have strong social networks are healthier, says Carlos Mendes de Leon, Ph.D., a professor of internal medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who has researched this link for 15 years.
“There are good studies out there showing that those who are socially more engaged tend to live longer and have better health over time than those who are more isolated,” he adds.
In one such study published in the journal Neurology in 2004, Mendes de Leon and his colleagues looked at 6,102 older adults (65 and older) over a five–year period. During that time, they did three interviews to ascertain their social networks and gave them four cognitive function tests. The researchers found that those with stronger social networks and those who engaged in social activities more often had higher levels of thinking and reasoning, and a reduced rate of cognitive decline.
Path to social connection
If you’re helping a loved one come out of his or her shell, begin slowly. You might start with a 10–minute walk together a few times a week, and then expand from there. Also, be sure to stay firm since he or she may have every excuse not to do it, says Barbara Resnick, a 30–year geriatric nurse practitioner.
“Call and say, ‘We’re going for a walk today,’ and stick to it.” Remember, it’s more than just social contact—you’re also showing him or her that you care.
Read on for five ways to help you keep your loved one healthy, happy and involved.
- Form a co–op. If you have friends or relatives who are also caring for someone, create a co–op, suggests Linda K. George, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for the Study of Aging at Duke University in North Carolina. For example, you might take a group of seniors to an activity at a community center once a week or once a month; then it’s another caregiver's turn. “You share the burden, and the seniors get out and spend time with peers,” George says.
To find out about local YMCA programs in your area, go to http://www.ymca.net/. If your loved one is resistant, frame the outing as getting together with friends—make it an easy, casual experience.
Senior centers are another option. There are 15,000 in the U.S., according to the National Council on Aging, so you’ll probably find one relatively close to your loved one. Though each is different, most provide health and wellness information and classes, employment or volunteer assistance, transportation services, exercise classes, social outings and lectures on art and culture. To find one, check your local phone book, or go to your county or town’s Web site.
- Look to religious groups. Houses of worship often provide classes, outings or transportation to religious services. Plus, they’re usually equipped to help those with disabilities or who have special needs, George notes. If your loved one is resistant to going to a house of worship, explain that many centers have both secular and nonsecular programs. Another option is to find out what programs are offered first, and entice your loved one with classes or programs she might enjoy—such as dance classes or discussion groups, Resnick says.
“Since each runs things differently, you might check your local house of worship’s bulletin or Web site, or call and ask about programs,” she notes. Or use the buddy system—contact the religious group, and ask if there’s a peer who could speak to your relative about the programs offered.
- Help elders help others. Volunteering is a terrific option—it gives seniors social contact as well as a sense of purpose. Many communities have specific projects set up for older adults who need lighter but still meaningful work. To involve your loved one, break him or her in slowly, Resnick suggests. You might have him assist a young neighbor with homework or act as a light nanny for local parents with young children. Then you can slowly expand to a larger project.
“The main point is that volunteering—whether on a small or large scale—will provide a sense of purpose and show them they’re still a vital part of society,” Resnick says. Try Senior Corps, which matches those older than 55 with local organizations that need them.
- Urge them online. Many seniors will likely be resistant to computers and the Internet since these may seem foreign and intimidating. But taking steps to bring them into the Internet age is well worth the effort, George says. “Our research at Duke has found that when older adults finally get online, they love it. They find endless sources of information and entertainment. It expands their world,” George says.
If your loved one refuses to use a computer or go online, try to slowly pique their interest. George got her mother interested by printing out Web pages about subjects that interested her. “I’d say, ‘Hey, look at this.’ It got her attention, and before long she was willing to try it,” George says. You also may need to slowly and patiently explain how to work a computer or the Internet to a loved. “It will take some patience,” Resnick says. Also make sure the computer screen and fonts are big enough for aging eyes, and purchase special supplies if necessary.
- Consider an assisted living facility. Both George and Resnick are quick to point out that for many older adults, a retirement community can be the best option. With organized activities, peers of a similar age and stage of life, onsite medical care, and safe, walkable courtyards and hallways, these facilities provide everything an older adult might need, especially for those who are living alone. "Though people think these facilities take away their independence, the opposite is true for most people - they're liberating. It's a quality of life that you can never match alone," Resnick says.