Avoid Senior Social Isolation
A good friend will be there for you through thick and thin, offer advice, a listening ear, and will make you laugh so hard you’re concerned for your stomach. But did you know a good friend can also keep you from developing chronic illnesses?
Many studies are showing that maintaining strong social connections could be just as important to our health as exercise and diet. And it’s easy to see how feeling isolated could so heavily affect our health. Those feeling isolated are more likely to get less exercise, have a higher fat content diet, typically consume more alcohol, and suffer from improper sleep patterns. But even more so, the feeling of loneliness effects our stress hormones, immune functions, and even cardiovascular functions. “We studied the interplay between social relationships, behavioral factors and physiological dysregulation that, over time, lead to chronic diseases of aging — cancer being a prominent example,” Yang Claire Yang, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, CPC fellow and a member of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
One study even found that among 2,320 men who survived a heart attack, those who had good social ties had a quarter of the risk of death within the next three years versus those who were more isolated. “Based on these findings, it should be as important to encourage adolescents and young adults to build broad social relationships and social skills for interacting with others as it is to eat healthy and be physically active,” said Kathleen Mullan Harris, James Haar Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill and faculty fellow at the Carolina Population Center (CPC).
So what happens to those who did build these broad social relations and social skills, but are now isolated from factors of aging?
Our social circles decrease as we age for many reasons. Retirement often limits the people we see in a day. Deaths of friends, partners, and family occur more frequently. We ourselves may develop health or mobility issues, making it difficult to leave the home. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone at the time of the census.
When working in senior care I would often hear “Oh my mom is fine, we visit her two or three times a week.” But stop and think about that. That isn’t enough! Think about how many people you see and interact with on a daily basis, then compare that with what your mom who can’t leave her home is receiving.
Social isolation is directly linked to long-term illnesses, depression, and even high blood pressure, so it is extra important you are aware of senior isolation and take precautions to prevent it.
Mobility is one of the largest causes of senior isolation. If they can’t leave their home, how will they see anyone outside of it? So find ways that work for your situation. For some public transportation or uber may be an option. For those who need more assistance, try asking multiple family members or neighbors if they wouldn’t mind driving your older adult once a week.
Find a hobby.
A hobby can do wonders for older adults. It can provide not only an activity and social interaction, but can also give them a sense of purpose. This could be something like an art class, a choir group, playing bridge or swimming. But could also be small things such as getting their nails done or going to a church group. Think of things your senior used to love doing- and see if you can adapt that to their current needs.
Encourage eating with others.
My Gram used to live in an assisted living center and would refuse to eat in the dining room, so trust me I know this can be difficult. But if you can, encourage your older adult to eat their meals with other people. Food is usually shared amongst friends and family, so dining alone can be hard on a senior.
Next week we’ll be talking about social activities you can do with your senior around the holidays! But until then let us know some activities your older adult likes in the comments below!