Preventing Isolation and Boredom among Seniors

We read a great deal about seniors’ physical health, but their mental and social health doesn’t seem to get nearly that much attention. Yet the issue is surprisingly widespread:  24% of community-dwelling seniors (7.7 million people) reported being socially isolated, and 4% (or 1.3 million) reported being severely socially isolated according to one federal study.

Feeling lonely or bored can have adverse effects on physical and mental health—including potential for greater depression and anxiety, cognitive decline and heart disease. Socially isolated seniors are especially vulnerable to these problems. Doctors also suggest there may be a connection with isolation and other issues such as the frequency of trips to the ER.

The good news is that there are more ways than ever for seniors to stay connected. Following are a few tips to help encourage older relatives to maintain healthy connections.

  1. Encourage participation in group activities: suggest book, walking, knitting, painting, cooking or other clubs; volunteer groups to give back, and/or faith-based groups your senior could be interested in. These can be online or in person and offer low-pressure ways to meet new friends. Look to local councils on aging and senior centers for programs.
  2. Encourage Learning: we are never too old to learn something new! Whether it’s memoir writing, history, new languages—encourage seniors to follow their educational interests through classes that meet online or in person.
  3. Encourage Volunteerism: to get out of the house, break up routines, leverage knowledge and gain greater sense of purpose. Parentis Foundation, for instance, pairs older adults with school-age children to tutor them on reading. Consider asking grandparents to help grandchildren with school projects or to read books together, online or in person.
  4. Look to Tech: Seniors might enjoy chat rooms on hobbies, video conferencing, and other online communication to keep in contact.
  5. Encourage Reconnecting: Are there friends or relatives your parents might miss and could reach outto via letter, email, social media? Exchanging emails with friends and family can greatly reduce the feeling of isolation. Researching family history can also bring relatives closer together.
  6. Suggest a Change:  Where a senior lives matters. Individuals who live in areas that aren’t walkable, lack public transportation, or have fewer in-home services may experience more isolation. Consider planning a visit, short trip or invite them to your home for a change of pace. For those who need more support, assisted living allows them to maintain independence while having easy access to friends and social activities.
  7. Make Transportation Available: lack of transportation leads to lack of independence and isolation. When driving is no longer safe, public transportation is intimidating, or accessibility with a wheelchair or walker is challenging, offer rides or teach them how to use car services.
  8. Enjoy a Meal Together: this is a great way to increase socialization, connection, and a sense of belonging. Dining with others increases enjoyment of food and promotes better nutrition. Invite your loved one for a meal, bring one to them, share recipes, have coffee together online and find out about your local Meals on Wheels.
  9. Involve Teens, Kids: to text, Facetime, send pics, or play games online with grandma and grandpa, or visit the old-fashioned way.
  10. Ensure Optimal Hearing, Vision: For seniors with vision and/or hearing problems, social isolation is compounded. Encourage seniors to get eyesight and hearing checked regularly.
  11. Consider a Trained Professional: If you feel isolation is causing your parent to become depressed, help them find a counselor or therapist who will develop a plan and coach them to increase social connection. Suggestions are often better received from an outside source.

Marco Aguiluz is Director of Home Care at Orange County-based Parentis Health in California. Click here for more information. For more on the author, click here.

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